Campaign finance law unlikely to affect 2002 elections

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(Host) A federal judge says it’s unlikely that Vermont’s strict campaign financing law will go into effect before this fall’s elections. The judge’s comments came almost a week after a federal appeals court said the state can limit campaign spending and donations.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) In 1997, Vermont passed one of the toughest campaign finance laws in the country. The law says that candidates for governor, for example, can accept no more than $400 from individuals or political parties. But the law was challenged two years ago, and a judge later struck down key provisions that limited spending and party donations.

Last week, the Second Circuit Court of appeals in New York reversed that ruling. The appeals court said Vermont does have the right to control how much candidates spend and how much the parties contribute.

The case went back to the federal court in Vermont. On Tuesday, the judge said it’s unlikely that the law will go back into effect before election day in November. Judge William Sessions said it would “create massive confusion” to implement the strict fundraising and spending limits at this stage in the campaign.

Outside the federal courthouse, a lawyer for the Vermont Republican Party and the Vermont Right to Life Committee said he plans to appeal the Second Circuit ruling. Lawyer James Bopp says the appeal will stop the law from taking effect in this election cycle.

(Bopp) “People have laid the plans for months and months on how to conduct these elections and to change the rules in midstream would be incredibly disruptive and would have a partisan effect, but we don’t even know what that would be.”

(Dillon) Advocates for campaign finance reform don’t want to wait for the new round of appeals. Brenda Wright, a lawyer for the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston, says the limits on political party contributions should be applied as soon as possible.

(Wright) “When you look at the enormous amounts of money that came in two years ago from the political parties, half a million dollars for each of the gubernatorial candidates. That’s soft money that’s getting funneled into Vermont, coming from the Ken Lays of the world. And Vermont has made a decision that it wants to put a stop to that. And the Second Circuit has unanimously told Vermont it has the right to say no to that money. Of course, the convenience and the concerns of the candidates are important. But Vermont law is also important.”

(Dillon) But the state attorney general’s office, which had defended the law in court, now wants to delay the appeals court ruling. Assistant Attorney General Richard Johnson says he’s worried that the issue will get tied up in the courts for weeks before Election Day.

(Johnson) “If the rules are changed, we are sure there will be complaints filed by candidates against their opponents, parties will be filing complaints. And for the next two or three months, Vermont’s elections will be basically in the court, just like the election [in] 2000 down in Florida.”

(Dillon) Judge Sessions hinted strongly that he would not reinstate the law before the November election. He says the issue of campaign finance reform is now perfectly framed for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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