Vermont’s campaign finance law

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(HOST) Tomorrow the United States will hear arguments in Randall v. Sorrell, a case testing the constitutionality of Vermont’s campaign finance law. Commentator Cheryl Hanna shares her thoughts on what this case means for Vermont and for the nation.

(HANNA) Before my Constitutional Law students read Vermont’s campaign finance law, I asked whether there should be some limits on how much candidates can spend to get elected. Like most Americans, the majority of them said yes. Particularly with the Jack Abrahmoff scandal, most ordinary folks want big money out of politics.

But that’s been hard to do. In 1976, in Buckley v. Valeo, the United States Supreme Court held that, well, money talks. Although it allowed for limits on how much you can contribute to a candidate, it said that limits on how much candidates can spend to get elected violate first amendment free speech rights.

By 1997, Vermonts legislature thought that runaway campaign spending was threatening our state democracy. So it passed an in-your-face campaign finance law, hoping the Supreme Court would revisit Buckely. Our law is the strictest in the nation. Contributions to statewide candidates are limited to $400, and those running for governor can’t spend more than $300,000 to get elected.

It’s that cap on campaign spending which is most controversial.

Vermont hasn’t been able to enforce our spending limits because the case has been tied up in litigation. But if the Court upholds Vermont’s law, it won’t only change how candidates run their campaigns here. The primary justifications for spending limits are that voters are cynical about politics, and candidates have to spend too much time fundraising to address the needs of the people. Yet, in Vermont, we arguably have the most participatory democracy in the nation. If Vermont can justify campaign finance reform, so, too, could every state and the Federal government.

Well, once my students read the law and the thousands of pages of documents in the case, we invited both Attorney General Bill Sorrell and Middlebury Attorney Peter Langrock to come to the law school to practice their arguments before heading to Washington.

Sorrell will be defending the law. Langrock represents individuals challenging it, but he lost a coin-toss to National Right to Life Attorney James Bopp, so Bopp will argue the case before the Supreme Court, with Langrock as "second chair."

The students donned black robes and pretended to be the Court, firing questions at each of the attorneys, just as the Justices will do. Then they decided the case. Somehow, in their evolution from being ordinary Americans to lawyers, they changed their minds, with the majority of them striking down the expenditure limitations because of free speech concerns. Many were persuaded by the potential loss of freedom that could result if the government starts dictating how Americans communicate their political messages, and found that our law ultimately benefited incumbents more than it got money out of politics.

All of us will know by June whether my students got it wrong or whether they were right on the money.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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