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Randall v. Sorrell (04-1528, 04-1530 & 04-1697)


On June 26, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Randall et al. v. Sorrell et. al. finding that Vermont state laws that limit contributions and expenditures for nonfederal elections are unconstitutional.


In 1997, Vermont enacted new campaign finance laws (Pub. Act. No. 64 (Act 64)) that imposed mandatory expenditure limits on the total amount a candidate for state office could spend during a two-year election cycle. The expenditure limits ranged from $2,000 to $300,000 depending on the state office sought. Incumbents seeking re-election were limited to spending no more than 85 to 90 percent of the applicable limit. Expenditures over $50 made by others on behalf of a candidate counted against the candidate’s expenditure limit if they were facilitated, solicited or approved by the candidate’s campaign, and also counted as a contributions in such an instance. Party expenditures that “primarily” benefited six or fewer candidates also counted against the candidate’s expenditure limit, as well as the party’s contribution limit.

In addition to expenditure limits, Act 64 also imposed contribution limits ranging from $200 to $400 on individuals and political committees (including political parties) making donations to candidates and $2,000 on donations to parties. The national, state and local affiliates of a party were considered affiliated for purposes of the contribution limits. Although the expenditure limits in Act 64 were indexed for inflation, the contribution limits were not.

Act 64 was challenged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont by a group of individual contributors, voters, candidates and political committees. The district court ruled that Act 64’s expenditure limits were unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, but upheld most of the contribution limits.

On appeal, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the contribution limits, and concluded that the expenditure limits “may” be constitutional. The appeals court found that the Vermont law was supported by compelling interests in preventing corruption, and the appearance of corruption, and an interest in limiting the amount of time state officials must spend raising funds for their campaigns.[1] The court of appeals remanded the case to the district court for it to determine whether the expenditure limits were narrowly tailored. Before the district court was able to take action on the remand, the parties sought review of the court of appeals ruling by the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court ruling

In its petition, the respondents asked the Supreme Court to overrule Buckley v. Valeo, 424 US 1 (1976), or in the alternative, to distinguish Buckley from the present case. In Buckley, the Supreme Court upheld federal election contribution limitations as constitutional, but held that expenditure limitations then contained in the Federal Election Campaign Act violated the First Amendment. The Court noted in Buckley that the need to prevent “corruption and the appearance of corruption” provided a sufficient justification for federal contribution limitations, but not for expenditure limitations because they impose a significantly more severe restriction on First Amendment rights.

In its ruling in Randall v. Sorrell, written by Justice Breyer, joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts, and joined in part by Justice Alito, the Court declined to overrule or distinguish Buckley. Instead, the Court concluded that the expenditure limits were not substantially different from those at issue in Buckley, and that Vermont’s justification for imposing the limits was similar to Congress’ rationale for imposing the expenditure limits overturned in Buckley. The Court also rejected the argument that expenditure limits are necessary to reduce the time spent fundraising, noting that the Buckley court had considered and rejected this justification for expenditure limits.

In regard to Act 64’s contribution limits, the Supreme Court held that the limits in question were so severe as to violate the First Amendment. Basing their opinion again on Buckley, the Court said that it had to "determine whether Act 64’s contribution limits prevented candidates from 'amassing the resources necessary for effective [campaign] advocacy'" by being too low and strict. In reviewing Act 64’s limits, the Court noted that "contribution limits that are too low can also harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns," concluding that the Vermont law limited contributions to an amount well below the limits at issue in Buckley, that the limits were well below the lowest amount ever previously upheld, and that they were the lowest limits in the nation. Based on its determination that these considerations amounted to "danger signs" that the Vermont contribution limits might be unacceptably low, the Court then considered whether the limits were "closely drawn" to match Vermont’s interests in adopting the law.

The Court relied on five factors in deciding that the limits were not narrowly tailored: (1) the significant restrictions on funding for challengers, (2) the harm caused to contributors in terms of the right to associate in a political party, as represented by the limits imposed on the ability of a Vermont political party to assist its candidates’ campaigns, (3) the treatment by Act 64 of certain volunteer expenses for travel and campaign materials as contributions, rather than as exempted expenses, (4) the lack of adjustment of the contribution limits for inflation, and (5) the lack of justifications that would warrant a low and restrictive contribution limit. Taken together, the Court ruled that these five factors led to the conclusion that Act 64’s contribution limits were not narrowly tailored to prevent corruption, but instead threatened to impose excessive burdens on the First Amendment interests of candidates, parties and volunteers, and thus, violated the First Amendment.

Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment and joining the opinion in part, stating his separate view that the respondents did not adequately present reasons why the Court should reexamine Buckley. Justice Kennedy filed an opinion concurring in the Court’s judgment but noting his skepticism of the current campaign finance legal system. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, filed an opinion concurring in the Court’s judgment striking down Act 64 as unconstitutional, but disagreeing with the Court’s rationale on the grounds that, in their view, Buckley was wrongly decided. Justice Souter, joined by Justice Ginsberg and in part by Justice Stevens, filed a dissenting opinion in which they explain that they would have upheld Vermont’s contribution limits, and would have declined to rule on the expenditure limits until further fact-finding was completed by the district court. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion stating his belief that Buckley’s decision on expenditure limits was wrong and should be overruled.


[1] Randall v. Sorrell, 118 F. Supp. 2d 470 (Vt. 2000).

Source:   FEC RecordAugust 2006.