Vt. seeks Supreme Court campaign finance law review
By JOHN ZICCONI Vermont Press Bureau | June 16,2005
MONTPELIER — Vermont's attorney general Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether Vermont's landmark campaign finance reform law is constitutional.
Joining William Sorrell in asking the high court to settle the dispute — over whether big money corrupts the political process and should be limited — was a broad coalition including Sen. Rick Reed, D-R.I., 13 other attorneys general, several public interest groups and former presidential candidate Bill Bradley.
"Vermont has challenged the notion that money has the right to out speak people," said Drew Hudson, spokesman for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. "We want a political culture that is not dominated by money and instead is dominated by real people … who know their candidates and come out and talk to them."
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February ruled that Vermont can limit spending on all state races and instructed federal Judge William Sessions to work out details.
The decision is the first in the nation to rule spending limits are constitutional and do not violate a candidate's First Amendment right to free speech. The Vermont Republican Party, among others, disagrees with the ruling and in May appealed it to the Supreme Court.
Sorrell supports the lower-court ruling, but he believes the Vermont case eventually must be heard by the high court to become law.
"We think going to the Supreme Court now is the quickest and most likely way to get Vermont's spending limits fully upheld in the shortest amount of time," said Tim Tomasi, an assistant attorney general.
Vermont's law limits gubernatorial campaign spending to $300,000, lieutenant governor spending to $100,000 and all other statewide races — like secretary of state and auditor of accounts — to $45,000 each. The law also limits spending on Vermont House and Senate races.
The law was supposed to go into effect in 2000, but has been on hold pending appeals.
The lower court ruled Vermont can limit campaign spending for two reasons: to stem the corruptive influence money can have on politics, and to relieve candidates of the time it takes to raise large sums of money.
The ruling is the first to uphold spending limits since the Supreme Court equated money with free speech in the 1970s, Tomasi said.
Both opponents and supporters of spending limits hope the high court will use the Vermont case to resolve what has become a rift in the lower courts. Federal appeals courts in both Ohio and New Mexico have struck down spending limits.
Conflict among lower courts is one of the main reasons the Supreme Court will accept a case. The high court is expected to decide this fall whether to review Vermont's law.
"Spending limits is an issue the court has not really analyzed in over 30 years," Tomasi said. "The time is now right to revisit the issue."
Had spending limits been in effect last year it would have reduced spending by several candidates.
Republican Gov. James Douglas in 2004 spent $682,000 — more than twice what the law allows — while Democratic opponent Peter Clavelle spent $503,000. Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and Auditor Randy Brock also spent far more than the law would allow.
Contact John Zicconi at firstname.lastname@example.org.