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Buckley v. Valeo


On January 30, 1976, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in Buckley v. Valeo, the landmark case involving the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended in 1974, and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act.

The Court upheld the constitutionality of certain provisions of the election law, including:

  • The limitations on contributions to candidates for federal office (2 U.S.C. §441a);
  • The disclosure and recordkeeping provisions of the FECA (2 U.S.C. §434); and
  • The public financing of Presidential elections (Subtitle H of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954).

The Court declared other provisions of the FECA to be unconstitutional, in particular:

  • The limitations on expenditures by candidates and their committees, except for Presidential candidates who accept public funding (formerly 18 U.S.C. §608(c)(1)(C-F));
  • The $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures (formerly 18 U.S.C. §608e);
  • The limitations on expenditures by candidates from their personal funds (formerly 18 U.S.C. §608a); and
  • The method of appointing members of the Federal Election Commission (formerly 2 U.S.C. §437c(a)(1)(A-C)).


On January 2, 1975, the suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Senator James L. Buckley of New York, Eugene McCarthy, Presidential candidate and former Senator from Minnesota, and several others. [1] The defendants included Francis R. Valeo, Secretary of the Senate and Ex officio member of the newly formed Federal Election Commission, and the Commission itself. [2] The plaintiffs charged that the FECA, under which the Commission was formed, and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act were unconstitutional on a number of grounds.

On January 24, 1975, pursuant to Section 437h(a) of the FECA, the district court certified the constitutional questions in the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. On August 15, 1976, the appeals court rendered a decision upholding almost all of the substantive provisions of the FECA with respect to contributions, expenditures and disclosure. The court also sustained the constitutionality of the method of appointing the Commission.

On September 19, 1975, the plaintiffs filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which reached its decision on January 30, 1976.

Supreme Court decision

Contribution limitations. The appellants had argued that the FECA's limitations on the use of money for political purposes were in violation of First Amendment protections for free expression, since no significant political expression could be made without the expenditure of money. The Court concurred in part with the appellants' claim, finding that the restrictions on political contributions and expenditures "necessarily reduce[d] the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of the exploration, and the size of the audience reached. This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today's mass society requires the expenditure of money." The Court then determined that such restrictions on political speech could only be justified by an overriding governmental interest.

The Court upheld the contribution limitations in the FECA, [3] stating that they constituted one of the election law's "primary weapons against the reality or appearance of improper influence stemming from the dependence of candidates on large campaign contributions" (the other weapon being the disclosure requirements). Although it appeared that the contribution limitations did restrict a particular kind of political speech, the Court concluded that they "serve[d] the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process without directly impinging upon the rights of individual citizens and candidates to engage in political debate and discussion."

The Court found no evidence to support the appellants' allegations that the contribution limitations discriminated against non incumbent candidates. With respect to the appellants' charge that the contribution limitations discriminated against minor and third parties and their candidates, the court noted that the FECA, "on its face," treated all candidates and parties equally. Furthermore, the Court said there was a legitimate argument that the limitations, in fact, appeared to benefit minor parties, since major parties and candidates received a greater proportion of their funding from large contributions.

The appellants had additionally challenged the limitations on certain expenses incurred by volunteers working on behalf of candidates or political committees. While the FECA placed no limits on most unreimbursed volunteer activities, it did limit unreimbursed travel expenses and certain costs of organizing campaign functions. Beyond these limits the costs were considered in-kind contributions (§431(8)(B)(i, ii, and iv)). The Court upheld the provisions for limited spending by volunteers, stating that they were a "constitutionally acceptable accommodation of Congress' valid interest in encouraging citizen participation in political campaigns while continuing to guard against the corrupting potential of large financial contributions to candidates."

Expenditure limitations. In contrast to its ruling on contribution limitations, the Court found that the expenditure ceiling in the FECA imposed "direct and substantial restraints on the quantity of political speech" and invalidated three expenditure limitations as violations of the First Amendment.

The overall limitations on expenditures by federal candidates and their committees were struck down by the Court. The appellees had argued that these limitations (formerly 18 U.S.C. §608(c)) served a public interest by equalizing the financial resources of candidates, but the Court determined that the amount of money spent in particular campaigns must necessarily vary, depending on the "size and intensity" of the support for individual candidates. Furthermore, expenditure ceilings "might serve not to equalize the opportunities of all candidates but to handicap a candidate who lacked substantial name recognition or exposure of his views before the start of the campaign." The appellees had also claimed that the expenditure limitations would reduce the overall cost of campaigning, and they cited statistics demonstrating the dramatic increases in campaign spending that had occurred nationwide in preceding years. The Court decided, however, that "[t]he First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one's political views is wasteful, excessive or unwise." The Court ruled, therefore, that the limitations on overall expenditures were unconstitutional.

The appellants had charged that the $1,000 per candidate annual limitation on independent expenditures-i.e., expenditures made by persons "relative to a clearly identified candidate...advocating the election or defeat of such candidate" (formerly 18 U.S.C. §608(e)(1))-was both unconstitutionally vague and an excessive hindrance on First Amendment rights of free expression. The Court resolved the vagueness question by reading "relative to" to mean "advocating the election or defeat of such candidate" in the same subsection, and by construing the provision to apply only to "expenditures for communications that in express terms advocate[d] the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate for Federal office." While the Court of Appeals had accepted the appellees' argument that the provision was necessary to prevent circumvention of the contribution limitations, the Supreme Court found that the "governmental interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption"-which justified the contribution limitations-was not sufficient to warrant the limitation on independent expenditures. If expenditure ceilings were to apply only to situations of express advocacy, the limitation would be easily circumvented by "expenditures that skirted the restriction on express advocacy of election or defeat but nevertheless benefited" a candidate. Moreover, the Court pointed out, abuses that might be generated by large independent expenditures did not appear to pose the same threat of corruption that large contributions posed since the "absence of prearrangement or coordination of the expenditure with the candidate or his agent alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidates." Thus finding that no substantial governmental interest was served by the limitation on independent expenditures, the Court concluded that such expenditures were protected as political discussion and expression under the First Amendment.

Regarding the limitations on a candidate's use of personal funds, the Court found that the provisions unconstitutionally interfered with the protected and valued right of an individual "to engage in the discussion of public issues and vigorously and tirelessly to advocate his own election." The Court continued that no governmental interest supported the limit on such personal funds. To the contrary, the Court noted that "the use of personal funds reduces a candidate's dependence on outside contributions and thereby counteracts the coercive pressures and attendant risks of abuse to which the contribution limitations are directed."

Finally, the Court added that its invalidation of the expenditure limitations was severable from Subtitle H, which provides for the public financing of Presidential elections. The limitations on expenditures by Presidential candidates who received public funds was legitimate since the acceptance of public funds was voluntary. Therefore, with regard to publicly financed elections, the consequent societal and governmental benefits weighed more heavily in favor of expenditure limitations.

Reporting and disclosure requirements. The appellants had sought a blanket exemption from the public disclosure provisions for all minor parties, claiming that contributors to minor parties, unlike contributors to the Republican and Democratic parties, were more vulnerable to threats, harassment and reprisal as a result of the public disclosure of their names. The appellants claimed the provisions constituted a violation of their rights to free association under the First Amendment and to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment. Recognizing that "compelled disclosure, in itself, can seriously infringe on privacy of association and belief guaranteed by the First Amendment," the Court nevertheless ruled that the Act's reporting and disclosure provisions were justified by governmental interest in (1) helping voters to evaluate candidates by informing them about the sources and uses of campaign funds, (2) deterring corruption and the appearance of it by making public the names of major contributors, and (3) providing information necessary to detect violations of the law.

The Court acknowledged the potential disadvantage for minor parties that could result from the public disclosure provisions of the law, but it noted that none of the minor parties that were appellants in this suit had demonstrated that their contributors had been injured by the disclosure provisions. Therefore, the Court ruled a blanket exemption unnecessary. The Court left open the possibility, however, that minor and new parties might successfully claim an exemption from FECA disclosure requirements by showing proof of injury.

Presidential election campaign fund. The Court upheld the constitutionality of Subtitle H of the Internal Revenue Code, which established the public financing of Presidential campaigns through a voluntary income tax checkoff. The Court determined that the appellants' claim that Congress violated the First Amendment in not allowing taxpayers to earmark their $1.00 checkoff to any candidate or party of their choice was not sufficient to invalidate the law. In the Court's opinion the checkoff constituted an appropriation by Congress, and as such it did not require outright taxpayer approval. Furthermore, "every appropriation made by Congress uses public money in a manner to which some taxpayers object."

The appellants had also argued, by analogy, that just as Congress may not subsidize or burden religion under the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment, the freedom of speech clause prohibits it from financing particular political campaigns. The Court ruled the analogy inapplicable, however, finding that Subtitle H furthered rather than abridged political speech because its purpose was "to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process."

The appellants further claimed that the public funding provisions violated the Fifth Amendment's due process clause, arguing that the eligibility requirements for public funds were comparable to unconstitutionally burdensome ballot access laws. The Court found no merit in the argument; the denial of public funds to candidates did "not prevent any candidate from getting on the ballot or prevent any voter from casting a vote for the candidate of his choice."

"In addition,"" the Court said, "the limits on contributions necessarily increase the burden of fundraising, and Congress properly regarded public financing as an appropriate means of relieving major-party Presidential candidates from the rigors of soliciting private contributions."

The Court also rejected appellants' contention that the public financing provisions discriminated against minor and new party candidates, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Specifically, the appellants had argued that Subtitle H favored major parties and their nominees by granting them full public funding for their conventions and general election campaigns, while minor and new parties and their candidates received only partial public funding according to a formula based on percentage of votes received.

Similarly, the appellants challenged the provision that restricted the payment of primary matching funds to only Presidential candidates who met certain requirements. These requirements included a provision for payments to candidates who had raised a minimum amount of contributions in at least twenty states (26 U.S.C. §9033(b)(3-4)). The Court found that such requirements for receiving public funds were reasonable; rather than preventing small parties from receiving public financing, the law only required them to demonstrate that they had a minimum level of broad-based support in order to qualify for federal subsidies. The Court concluded, "Any risk of harm to minority interests...cannot overcome the force of the governmental interests against the use of public money to foster frivolous candidacies, create a system of splintered parties, and encourage unrestrained factionalism." Furthermore, the Court noted that the advantage of receiving public financing was balanced by the requirement to adhere to strict expenditure limitations. As mentioned above, the Court upheld the constitutionality of expenditure limits as they applied to candidates and parties receiving public funds.

Appointment of the commissioners. The appellants had challenged the method of appointing the six members of the Commission, as specified in the FECA, which provided that the President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate each appoint two members. Arguing that the FEC's powers were executive rather than legislative, the appellants contended that the Congressional appointment of Commissioners violated the separation of powers principle embodied in the appointments clause of Article II of the Constitution. The Supreme Court determined that the appointments clause permitted only the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint officers to exercise such executive authority as the Commission was granted. The Court ruled that the Commission, as it was then constituted, could not exercise its authority to enforce the law, conduct civil litigation, issue advisory opinions or determine eligibility for public funds, because these functions could not properly be regarded as legislative. The Commission's informational and auditing powers, however, were found to be legislative in nature, and therefore constitutional.

The Court accorded de facto validity to all acts of the Commission prior to the ruling and granted a 30-day stay of judgment-during which time the agency could exercise all of the authorities given to it under the FECA-so that Congress could reconstitute the Commission according to the provisions of Article II of the Constitution. The initial 30-day stay expired on February 29, 1976, but was extended to March 22. On March 23 the FEC's executive powers were suspended, and they remained suspended until May 21, when the Commissioners were reappointed by the President pursuant to the FECA Amendments of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-283 (May 5, 1976).


[1] Along with Buckley and McCarthy, the appellants in this suit included Congressman William A. Steiger of Wisconsin, Mr. Stewart Rawlings Mott (a major contributor to various political committees), the Committee for a Constitutional Presidency-McCarthy '76, the Conservative Party of the State of New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, Human Events, Inc., Conservative Victory Fund, the Mississippi Republican Party and the Libertarian Party.

[2] The other appellees included the Clerk of the House of Representatives W. Pat Jennings, the Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats, and the Attorney General.

[3] The contribution limitations in the FECA included a $1,000 per candidate, per election, ceiling on contributions by individuals and political committees, a $5,000 per candidate, per election, ceiling on contributions by committees which qualify as multicandidate committees, a $25,000 annual ceiling for all contributions by any individual, and limitations on contributions to political party committees.

Source:   Buckley v. Valeo, 387 F. Supp. 135 (D.D.C. 1975) (application for three judge district court denied: constitutional questions certified to the Court of Appeals), 519 F.2d 817 (D.C. Cir. 1975) (per curiam) (motion to remand for the purpose of certifying constitutional questions granted), 519 F.2d 821 (D.C. Cir. 1975) (per curiam) (certified questions answered), 401 F. Supp. 1235 (D.D.C. 1975) (relevant portions of the opinion of the D.C. Cir. adopted), aff'd in part, rev'd in part, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), on remand, 532 F.2d 187 (1976 D.C. Cir.) (en banc), (modifying answers to constitutional questions certified by the district court).


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