ACLU to File Constitutional Challenge to Vermont's Campaign Finance Restrictions

Affiliate: ACLU of Vermont
August 12, 1999 12:00 am

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MONTPELIER, VT — New campaign finance restrictions on contributions and spending cut to the heart of the First Amendment’s protection of political freedom, according to a lawsuit to be filed tomorrow in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

The suit asks the court to declare certain provisions of Vermont’s 1997 campaign finance reform law unconstitutional and to issue a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the challenged provisions.

“The very essence of the First Amendment is the right of the people to run for public office, to speak, to discuss, to publish, to organize and to join together on issues of political and public concern,” the ACLU’s complaint said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of George Kuusela, a Republican, and Neil Randall, a Libertarian, both candidates for the Vermont House of Representatives in the year 2000; John Patch, a Democratic candidate for the Vermont Senate; Steve Howard, a former candidate for Auditor of Accounts who dropped out of the running in part because of the new law; Jeffrey Nelson, a campaign contributor who believes that the reduced limits on contributions violate his right to free speech and association; and the Vermont Libertarian Party.

“In our zeal to get at big corporations and interest groups, we are hurting the little guy,” said Leslie Williams, Executive Director of the ACLU of Vermont.

“The law helps incumbents and hobbles the underdog who wants to run for office, prevents ordinary people from participating in the political process, and suggests that Vermont will be corrupted if people from out of state want to help finance a campaign,” she added.

The ACLU is not challenging the parts of the law that allow for public financing and voluntary spending limits for candidates, provisions which it considers to be reasonable and constitutional.

However, Vermont’s new spending limits are in direct violation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo and therefore clearly unconstitutional, a fact which the legislature knew when it passed the law, according to the ACLU.

The Supreme Court has consistently rejected any attempt to put limits on a candidate’s expenditures, and repeatedly emphasized that the avoidance of quid pro quo corruption is the ACLU Challenge to Campaign Finance Restrictions, only justification for campaign finance regulation.

In Vermont’s law, limits as low as $200, $300 and $400, depending upon the race, do not further a government interest in reducing the risk of corruption.

The ACLU maintains that “it is neither intuitive, nor was there any record before the legislature, that Vermont’s elected representatives would sell their votes for such paltry sums,” nor that the previous $1,000 contribution limit had allowed corruption.

Mandatory provisions of the new law that are challenged include:

  1. limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations, including political parties and political action committees, may contribute to a candidate;

  2. limiting to 25% the aggregate amount of money that a candidate can accept from out-of-state voters;

  3. limits on the amount candidates can spend on their own campaigns; and

  4. treating independent expenditures by political parties as direct contributions to candidates.

All of these provisions, according to the ACLU, not only violate the First Amendment but fail in their professed intent to prevent corruption and give a fair chance to all candidates.

Lawyers representing the ACLU as Cooperating Attorneys include Peter F. Langrock, Mitchell L. Pearl, Joshua R. Diamond, Melanie McNeil Kehne, David Putter, and Mark Lopez. Lopez is on the staff of the National ACLU and has been involved in ACLU challenges to campaign finance reform laws in other states, including Maine.

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