Court ruling on state campaign spending limits

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(Host) A federal appeals court has ruled that it may be constitutional for the state of Vermont to impose spending limits on political campaigns.

The court returned the case to Judge William Sessions to decide if an overall limit on spending is the best way to reduce corruption in politics.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The timing of the decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals caught most of the participants in the case by surprise.

In 1997, the Vermont Legislature passed a campaign finance reform law, known as Act 64, that imposed spending caps on all statewide and legislative races.

The spending limit was challenged by the Vermont Republican Party and Vermont Right to Life.

Federal District Court Judge William Sessions concurred with their position and overturned that part of the law.

That decision was challenged by the state of Vermont and resulted in this week’s ruling by the appeals court.

This is what the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said:

“Vermont has a sufficiently important governmental interest in fighting the real and apparent corruption that accompanies unlimited campaign gifts and that those contribution limits are closely drawn to achieve this goal.”

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says the ruling represents an important legal principle involving the landmark 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Buckley vs. Valeo – a ruling that equated campaign spending with free speech:

(Sorrell) “This is the first time that we’re aware of that a federal appeals court has looked at Buckley and has definitely said that Buckley does not outright prohibit limitations on expenditures and contributions, that the government can limit campaign expenditures and campaign contributions to campaigns if certain important factors exist that further an important public policy consideration.”

(Kinzel) The Vermont Public Interest Research Group was actively involved in the passage of Act 64 and was a participant in the appeals case.

VPIRG director Paul Burns is very pleased by the court’s ruling:

(Burns) “We think this is a tremendous victory for democracy and for the voters of Vermont. This decision makes clear that citizens of Vermont and the voters of this state don’t have to fight the corrupting influence of big money in elections with their hands tied behind their back. The court has upheld the concept of putting absolute caps on what candidates can spend and they simply say you just need to prove that’s the best solution to the problem of the corrupting influence of money in the electoral process.”

(Kinzel) It’s likely that the ruling will be appealed – Republican Party chairman Jim Barnet says he’s reviewing the decision with his lawyers and he says he’ll a definitive response to the ruling in the near future.

Attorney General Sorrell says one thing is clear about the case – the decision will not have any impact on campaign spending for the November election.

Other provisions of the original campaign finance law in Vermont limited individual contributions and established a system of public financing.

Those provisions weren’t challenged and remain in effect today.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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