New Supreme Court Speaks: A Pair of Election Law Cases This Year Will Have Long-Range Effects

By Savage, David G. | State Legislatures, September 2006 | Go to article overview

New Supreme Court Speaks: A Pair of Election Law Cases This Year Will Have Long-Range Effects


Savage, David G., State Legislatures


The Supreme Court took up the issue of election law this year and gave state lawmakers broad leeway to redraw electoral districts--even for purely partisan purposes--but very little authority to restrict campaign funding. It was, you might say, a victory for the Red States over the Blue States.

The pair of election cases highlighted the Court's first term under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. It was a year in which the justices largely avoided the "culture wars" over abortion, religion and gay rights. And the fate of the "federalism revolution" led by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist remains to be determined.

CAPS ON CAMPAIGN SPENDING

But the two election-law disputes came knocking at the Court's door early this year, and the court's opinions handed down in late June will be closely studied for years. Both, however, were defeats for liberal reformers.

Vermont, under its then-Governor Howard Dean, had sought to sharply limit the influence of money in politics and to restore the tradition of small-town democracy. In an address to the General Assembly in 1997, Dean said politicians should acknowledge the obvious and admit that money buys access. The only way to limit the role of money in making laws, he said, was to limit the impact of money in campaigns.

In response, Vermonters enacted the nation's only statewide caps on campaign spending. They also set extremely low limits for contributions to candidates. The new rules would have limited candidates for governor to spending no more than $300,000 during the two-year election cycle. Candidates for the state Senate could spend only $4,000, while those seeking to be a state representative for a single district could spend only $2,000. Incumbents seeking reelection were limited to 85 percent of these amounts.

The contribution limits were similarly strict. Contributors to statewide candidates, including the governor, could give no more than $400, while supporters of a state representative were limited to gifts of $200.

Before this law could go into effect, it was challenged on First Amendment grounds by the National Right to Life Committee, the Vermont Republican State Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union. It was defended by, among others, the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute and by a group of Blue states, including California and Massachusetts, whose voters have shown interest in restricting the influence of money in politics.

A CASE OF REDISTRICTING

Texas, the biggest of the Red States, came before the high court to defend what critics called an unprecedented mid-decade "partisan gerrymander." The Texas Legislature, newly under Republican control in 2003, worked with then-House Majority Tom DeLay to redraw its congressional districts to reflect the surging Republican vote in the Lone Star State. In doing so, they converted a 17-15 Democratic edge in the congressional delegation to an overwhelming 21-11 Republican majority by 2004. Several Democratic lawmakers and Latino activists went to court to challenge DeLay's plan, arguing it was unconstitutional and violated the Voting Rights Act. They were joined by good-government groups, including the League of Women Voters, who decried gerrymandering and called for more competitive elections.

The verdict from the Supreme Court was clear: Vermont lost and Texas won, at least for the most part.

The ruling in the Vermont case firmly rejected official limits on campaign spending, and it warned lawmakers against setting contribution limits too low. Dollar limits that are too low "harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability," said Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who wrote the lead opinion in Randall v. Sorrell, the case from Vermont.

The Court adhered to its most famous precedent in this area, the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. …

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