Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC is the first Supreme Court ruling on contribution limits since since 1976, when in the landmark decision Buckley vs. Valeo , 424 U.S. 1 it said free-speech rights trump any attempt to limit a candidate’s spending.
Even though Buckley v. Valeo permitted contribution caps of $1,000 (by individuals) for federal candidates, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Missouri’s limit of $1,075 must fall because inflation had eroded its fairness and because state officials had not proved that larger donations would corrupt elections. The Missouri case was one in a recent rash of cases where state contribution limits, some as low as$100, were struck down by federal courts.
In a 6-3 ruling in January 2000, the US Supreme Court upheld Missouri’s caps (of$275, $525 and $ 1,075, for respective offices sought). Some experts believe this decision could clear the way for limits lower than the$1,000 federal threshold.The ruling also demonstrates that the court concurs at least with the principle of limiting contributions as a way to prevent corruption in government. (This is in contrast to statements by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Sen. Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) and others who cite the First Amendment to oppose any soft-money legislation in Congress.)
The justices agreed that the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, did not require states to come up with extensive “empirical evidence” of actual corruption to justify limiting contributions. Justice John Paul Stevens, in a concurring opinion, reiterated the view in Buckley that limits on contributions to candidates are less constitutionally suspect than direct limits on speech. “Money is property; it is not speech…. The right to use one’s money to hire gladiators, or to fund’speech by proxy,’ certainly merits significant constitutional protection,” Stevens wrote. “These property rights, however, are not entitled to the same protection as the right to say what one pleases.”
Accordingto Deborah Goldberg of the Brennan Center for Justice, which defended Missouri in the case, the decision will “give states a real boost of confidence that their limits will be upheld….This strengthens the side of Buckley that upholds contribution limits.”
“Today’s opinion stops the backsliding that lower courts have done over the past 10 years and returns us to where we were with the Buckley v. Valeo decision,” says Derek Cressman of U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Abouttwo-thirds of the states impose campaign contribution limits, but most are at or above the $ 1,000 approved by Buckley. Increasingly, federal courts are viewing the limits approved in Buckley as a floor, below which states cannot go. But accordng to analysts, Souter’s opinion in the case could be used to justify contribution limits lower than the$1,000 limit (for federal office) in federal law and the $1,075 in the Missouri law that was upheld. He said there was no evidence that the Missouri limit created a “system of suppressed political advocacy.” In examining future limits, Souter said the test should be “whether the contribution limitation was so radical in effect as to render political association ineffective, drive the sound of a candidate’s voice below the level of notice, and render contributions pointless.” When that test is applied, says Deborah Goldberg, “even $ 100 limits can be constitutional in jurisdictions where a campaign can function at that level with major grassroots funding.”
However, the decision does not disrupt the other half of Buckley— the court’s judgment that while limits on contributions to candidates are OK, limits on spending by candidates violate the First Amendment. The 1976 decision drew a distinction between spending, which it said could not be capped, and contributions (for which it upheld the current $1,000 limit on individual contributions in federal elections).
Somereformers believe that the wording of a concurrence by Justice Stephen G. Breyer and a dissent by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in Nixon suggest that there may be four votes for reconsidering Buckley. Previously, only justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were on the record.
JusticeBreyer, for example, said that he could see making less absolute the line between contributions and expenditures. And he brought up a previously unmentioned state interest in enacting limits: the desire to protect the right of each citizen to have an effective voice in the process. Justice Kennedy said that he would leave open the possibility of a constitutional system imposing limits on both contributions and expenditures as justifying another state interest: “permitting officeholders to concentrate their time and efforts on official duties rather than on fund-raising.”
However Deborah Goldberg does note that “the court did refuse to take two cases just last year with mandatory expenditure limits. At this point, I think the principal effect of the Nixon decision is to bolster Buckley.”