Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

So There Are Campaign Contribution Limits That Are Too Low

Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

So There Are Campaign Contribution Limits That Are Too Low

Article excerpt


When Congress approved contribution limits for candidates for president of the United States and Congress in 1974, it was the first time in our nation's history that contributions to federal candidate campaigns had been limited. The U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo approved these limits because they precluded "large" contributions, which the Court found gave rise to the specter of "actual or perceived corruption." (1) But after the Supreme Court's 2000 decision in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Gov't PAC, (2) courts (3) and commentators (4) believed that no contribution limit was too low. The 2006 Supreme Court case of Randall v. Sorrell (5) tested that proposition and by a six to three vote found Vermont's campaign contribution limits too low. The 1974 federal contribution limit was set at $1000 per election; Vermont's limits varied by office with a gubernatorial candidate limited to $400 per election cycle. (6) Adjusted for inflation and per election, Vermont's gubernatorial limit amounted to about fifty-seven 1976 dollars. (7) If the Supreme Court had upheld the Vermont limits, there truly would have been no contribution limit too low.

The Supreme Court has used "intermediate" rather than "strict" scrutiny to examine contribution limits. While they "impinge on the protected freedoms of expression and association," (8) the limits need only be "closely drawn" to a "'sufficiently important interest'" for the limits "to avoid unnecessary abridgment of First Amendment freedoms." (9)

The only sufficiently important interest so far found is the interest in preventing real or apparent corruption. (10) If the government can show that its limits further this interest, it must further show that the limits are closely drawn by establishing that challengers can mount effective campaigns under the limits. Finally, limits on contributions from parties to their candidates will fail constitutional scrutiny if they prevent candidates from effectively campaigning and will also fail if they infringe on the associational or speech rights of parties. (11) The first Part of this Article will briefly recount the history of contribution limits and the constitutional rights that are implicated by such limits. The second Part will outline the analysis the Supreme Court has provided to guide lower courts, governments, and litigants when dealing with this issue and will also discuss the current and future status of contribution limits.



Contribution limits "operate in the area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities." (12) Because "[d]iscussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution," the Supreme Court has proclaimed that "[t]he First Amendment affords the broadest protection to such political expression in order 'to assure the unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.'" (13)

In reviewing whether a statute violates the right to associate for politically expressive purposes, it is critical to recall that "[t]he Constitution guarantees freedom of association of this kind as an indispensable means of preserving other individual liberties." (14) So important is this right that the Supreme Court reaffirmed in the context of campaign finance limits that "the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny." (15) Infringements on such rights "may be justified by regulations adopted to serve compelling state interests, unrelated to the suppression of ideas, that cannot be achieved through means significantly less restrictive of associational freedoms." (16) This standard affirms Buckley, which has long been cited for the proposition that the "right of association may be limited by state regulations necessary to serve a compelling interest unrelated to the suppression of ideas. …

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