Randall v. Sorrell

548 U.S. 230

Case Year: 2006

Case Ruling: 6-3, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Breyer

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Alito


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Souter

Joiner(s): Ginsburg, Stevens

2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Kennedy


2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Stevens


3rd Concurring Opinion

Author: Thomas

Joiner(s): Scalia

3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


In 1997 Vermont passed Act 64, a law that imposed limits on financial contributions and expenditures related to state election campaigns. Under the act, contributions by individuals, political parties, and political committees were limited to $400 for candidates for statewide offices, $300 for state senate seats, and $200 for state representative races. In addition, no individual could contribute more than $2,000 to a political party. These limits applied to a two-year election cycle of primary and general elections. Contributions by candidates and their families were not subject to the limitations.

The expenditure limits ranged from $2,000 for a campaign to the state house of representatives to $300,000 for a gubernatorial campaign. To compensate for the electoral advantage enjoyed by incumbents, those running for reelection to statewide office could spend only 85 percent of these expenditure limits, and state legislature incumbents could spend 90 percent. The expenditure limits were also for a two-year election cycle. Neil Randall, part of a group of Vermont citizens and organizations that had voted, run for office, or contributed to election campaigns, filed suit against state attorney general William Sorrell and other state officials. The suit claimed that Act 64 violated the First Amendment. The court of appeals upheld the contribution limits, but asked a lower court to give the expenditure limits additional study. Both sides requested Supreme Court review.



We turn first to the Act's expenditure limits. Do those limits violate the First Amendment's free speech guarantees?

In Buckley v. Valeo [1976] the Court considered the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), a statute that, much like the Act before us, imposed both expenditure and contribution limitations on campaigns for public office. The Court, while upholding FECA's contribution limitations as constitutional, held that the statute's expenditure limitations violated the First Amendment.

Buckleystated that both kinds of limitations "implicate fundamental First Amendment interests." It noted that the Government had sought to justify the statute's infringement on those interests in terms of the need to prevent "corruption and the appearance of corruption." In the Court's view, this rationale provided sufficient justification for the statute's contribution limitations, but it did not provide sufficient justification for the expenditure limitations.

The Court explained that the basic reason for this difference between the two kinds of limitations is that expenditure limitations "impose significantly more severe restrictions on protected freedoms of political expression and association than" do contribution limitations. Contribution limitations, though a "marginal restriction upon the contributor's ability to engage in free communication," nevertheless leave the contributor "fre[e] to discuss candidates and issues." Expenditure limitations, by contrast, impose "[a] restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign." They thereby necessarily "reduc[e] the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached." Indeed, the freedom "to engage in unlimited political expression subject to a ceiling on expenditures is like being free to drive an automobile as far and as often as one desires on a single tank of gasoline."

The Court concluded that "[n]o governmental interest that has been suggested is sufficient to justify the restriction on the quantity of political expression imposed by" the statute's expenditure limitations. It decided that the Government's primary justification for expenditure limitations, preventing corruption and its appearance, was adequately addressed by the Act's contribution limitations and disclosure requirements. The Court also considered other governmental interests advanced in support of expenditure limitations. It rejected each. Consequently, it held that the expenditure limitations were "constitutionally invalid."

Over the last 30 years, in considering the constitutionality of a host of different campaign finance statutes, this Court has repeatedly adhered to Buckley's constraints, including those on expenditure limits. The respondents recognize that, in respect to expenditure limits, Buckley appears to be a controlling--and unfavorable--precedent. They seek to overcome that precedent in two ways. First, they ask us in effect to overrule Buckley. . . .

Second, in the alternative, they ask us to limit the scope of Buckley significantly by distinguishing Buckley from the present case. . . .

The Court has often recognized the "fundamental importance" of stare decisis, the basic legal principle that commands judicial respect for a court's earlier decisions and the rules of law they embody. . . . [T]he rule of law demands that adhering to our prior case law be the norm. Departure from precedent is exceptional, and requires "special justification." This is especially true where, as here, the principle has become settled through iteration and reiteration over a long period of time.

We can find here no such special justification that would require us to overrule Buckley. Subsequent case law has not madeBuckley a legal anomaly or otherwise undermined its basic legal principles. We cannot find in the respondents' claims any demonstration that circumstances have changed so radically as to undermine Buckley's critical factual assumptions. The respondents have not shown, for example, any dramatic increase in corruption or its appearance in Vermont; nor have they shown that expenditure limits are the only way to attack that problem. At the same time, Buckley has promoted considerable reliance. Congress and state legislatures have used Buckley when drafting campaign finance laws. And, as we have said, this Court has followed Buckley, upholding and applying its reasoning in later cases. Overruling Buckley now would dramatically undermine this reliance on our settled precedent.

For all these reasons, we find this a case that fits the stare decisis norm. And we do not perceive the strong justification that would be necessary to warrant overruling so well established a precedent. We consequently decline the respondents' invitation to reconsider Buckley.

The respondents also ask us to distinguish these cases from Buckley. But we can find no significant basis for that distinction. . . .[G]iven Buckley's continued authority, we must conclude that Act 64's expenditure limits violate the First Amendment.

We turn now to a more complex question, namely the constitutionality of Act 64's contribution limits. The parties, while accepting Buckley's approach, dispute whether, despite Buckley's general approval of statutes that limit campaign contributions, Act 64's contribution limits are so severe that in the circumstances its particular limits violate the First Amendment.

As with the Act's expenditure limits, we begin with Buckley. In that case, the Court upheld the $1,000 contribution limit before it. Buckley recognized that contribution limits, like expenditure limits, "implicate fundamental First Amendment interests," namely, the freedoms of "political expression" and "political association." But, unlike expenditure limits (which "necessarily reduc[e] the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached"), contribution limits "involv[e] little direct restraint on" the contributor's speech. They do restrict "one aspect of the contributor's freedom of political association," namely, the contributor's ability to support a favored candidate, but they nonetheless "permi[t] the symbolic expression of support evidenced by a contribution," and they do "not in any way infringe the contributor's freedom to discuss candidates and issues." Consequently, the Court wrote, contribution limitations are permissible as long as the Government demonstrates that the limits are "closely drawn" to match a "sufficiently important interest." It found that the interest advanced in the case, "prevent[ing] corruption" and its "appearance," was "sufficiently important" to justify the statute's contribution limits.

The Court also found that the contribution limits before it were "closely drawn." It recognized that, in determining whether a particular contribution limit was "closely drawn," the amount, or level, of that limit could make a difference. Indeed, it wrote that "contribution restrictions could have a severe impact on political dialogue if the limitations prevented candidates and political committees from amassing the resources necessary for effective advocacy.". . .

Since Buckley, the Court has consistently upheld contribution limits in other statutes. The Court has recognized, however, that contribution limits might sometimes work more harm to protected First Amendment interests than their anticorruption objectives could justify. And individual Members of the Court have expressed concern lest too low a limit magnify the "reputation-related or media-related advantages of incumbency and thereby insulat[e] legislators from effective electoral challenge." In the cases before us, the petitioners challenge Act 64's contribution limits on that basis.

Following Buckley, we must determine whether Act 64's contribution limits prevent candidates from "amassing the resources necessary for effective [campaign] advocacy;" whether they magnify the advantages of incumbency to the point where they put challengers to a significant disadvantage; in a word, whether they are too low and too strict to survive First Amendment scrutiny. In answering these questions, we recognize, as Buckley stated, that we have "no scalpel to probe" each possible contribution level. We cannot determine with any degree of exactitude the precise restriction necessary to carry out the statute's legitimate objectives. In practice, the legislature is better equipped to make such empirical judgments, as legislators have "particular expertise" in matters related to the costs and nature of running for office. Thus ordinarily we have deferred to the legislature's determination of such matters.

Nonetheless, as Buckleyacknowledged, we must recognize the existence of some lower bound. At some point the constitutional risks to the democratic electoral process become too great. After all, the interests underlying contribution limits, preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, "directly implicate the integrity of our electoral process."McConnell [ v. FEC, 2003]. Yet that rationale does not simply mean "the lower the limit, the better." That is because contribution limits that are too low can also harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability. Were we to ignore that fact, a statute that seeks to regulate campaign contributions could itself prove an obstacle to the very electoral fairness it seeks to promote. Thus, we see no alternative to the exercise of independent judicial judgment as a statute reaches those outer limits. . . .

These limits are well below the limits this Court upheld in Buckley. . . .

Moreover, considered as a whole, Vermont's contribution limits are the lowest in the Nation. . . . Finally, Vermont's limit is well below the lowest limit this Court has previously upheld. . . . In sum, Act 64's contribution limits are substantially lower than both the limits we have previously upheld and comparable limits in other States. These are danger signs that Act 64's contribution limits may fall outside tolerable First Amendment limits. We consequently must examine the record independently and carefully to determine whether Act 64's contribution limits are "closely drawn" to match the State's interests.

Our examination of the record convinces us that, from a constitutional perspective, Act 64's contribution limits are too restrictive. We reach this conclusion based not merely on the low dollar amounts of the limits themselves, but also on the statute's effect on political parties and on volunteer activity in Vermont elections. Taken together, Act 64's substantial restrictions on the ability of candidates to raise the funds necessary to run a competitive election, on the ability of political parties to help their candidates get elected, and on the ability of individual citizens to volunteer their time to campaigns show that the Act is not closely drawn to meet its objectives. In particular, five factors together lead us to this decision.First, the record suggests, though it does not conclusively prove, that Act 64's contribution limits will significantly restrict the amount of funding available for challengers to run competitive campaigns. . . . Second, Act 64's insistence that political parties abide by exactly the same low contribution limits that apply to other contributors threatens harm to a particularly important political right, the right to associate in a political party. . . .

Third, the Act's treatment of volunteer services aggravates the problem. Like its federal statutory counterpart, the Act excludes from its definition of "contribution" all "services provided without compensation by individuals volunteering their time on behalf of a candidate." But the Act does not exclude the expenses those volunteers incur, such as travel expenses, in the course of campaign activities. The Act's broad definitions would seem to count those expenses against the volunteer's contribution limit, at least where the spending was facilitated or approved by campaign officials. . . .

Fourth, unlike the contribution limits we upheld in [ Nixon v. ] Shrink [ Missouri Government PAC, 2000], Act 64's contribution limits are not adjusted for inflation. Its limits decline in real value each year. Indeed, in real dollars the Act's limits have already declined by about 20%. . . . Fifth, we have found nowhere in the record any special justification that might warrant a contribution limit so low or so restrictive as to bring about the serious associational and expressive problems that we have described. Rather, the basic justifications the State has advanced in support of such limits are those present in Buckley. The record contains no indication that, for example, corruption (or its appearance) in Vermont is significantly more serious a matter than elsewhere. . . .

These five sets of considerations, taken together, lead us to conclude that Act 64's contribution limits are not narrowly tailored. Rather, the Act burdens First Amendment interests by threatening to inhibit effective advocacy by those who seek election, particularly challengers; its contribution limits mute the voice of political parties; they hamper participation in campaigns through volunteer activities; and they are not indexed for inflation. Vermont does not point to a legitimate statutory objective that might justify these special burdens. We understand that many, though not all, campaign finance regulations impose certain of these burdens to some degree. We also understand the legitimate need for constitutional leeway in respect to legislative line-drawing. But our discussion indicates why we conclude that Act 64 in this respect nonetheless goes too far. It disproportionately burdens numerous First Amendment interests, and consequently, in our view, violates the First Amendment.

We conclude that Act 64's expenditure limits violate the First Amendment as interpreted in Buckley v. Valeo. We also conclude that the specific details of Act 64's contribution limits require us to hold that those limits violate the First Amendment, for they burden First Amendment interests in a manner that is disproportionate to the public purposes they were enacted to advance. . . . Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings.

It is so ordered.


The Court decides the constitutionality of the limitations Vermont places on campaign expenditures and contributions. I agree that both limitations violate the First Amendment. . . .

The universe of campaign finance regulation is one this Court has in part created and in part permitted by its course of decisions. That new order may cause more problems than it solves. On a routine, operational level the present system requires us to explain why $200 is too restrictive a limit while $1,500 is not. Our own experience gives us little basis to make these judgments, and certainly no traditional or well-established body of law exists to offer guidance. On a broader, systemic level political parties have been denied basic First Amendment rights. Entering to fill the void have been new entities such as political action committees, which are as much the creatures of law as of traditional forces of speech and association. Those entities can manipulate the system and attract their own elite power brokers, who operate in ways obscure to the ordinary citizen.

Viewed within the legal universe we have ratified and helped create, the result the plurality reaches is correct; given my own skepticism regarding that system and its operation, however, it seems to me appropriate to concur only in the judgment.


Although I agree with the plurality that Act 64 is unconstitutional, I disagree with its rationale for striking down that statute. Invoking stare decisis, the plurality rejects the invitation to overrule Buckley v. Valeo (1976). It then appliesBuckley to invalidate the expenditure limitations and, less persuasively, the contribution limitations. I continue to believe that Buckley provides insufficient protection to political speech, the core of the First Amendment. The illegitimacy ofBuckleyis further underscored by the continuing inability of the Court (and the plurality here) to apply Buckley in a coherent and principled fashion. As a result, stare decisis should pose no bar to overruling Buckley and replacing it with a standard faithful to the First Amendment. Accordingly, I concur only in the judgment.


I am convinced that Buckley's holding on expenditure limits is wrong, and that the time has come to overrule it.

To begin with, Buckley's holding on expenditure limits itself upset a long-established practice. For the preceding 65 years, congressional races had been subject to statutory limits on both expenditures and contributions. . . . While Buckley's holding on contribution limits was consistent with this backdrop, its holding on expenditure limits "involve[d] collision with a prior doctrine more embracing in its scope, intrinsically sounder, and verified by experience." Helvering v. Hallock(1940). . . . . . . These limits on expenditures are far more akin to time, place, and manner restrictions than to restrictions on the content of speech. . . . I would uphold them "so long as the purposes they serve are legitimate and sufficiently substantial."

Buckley's conclusion to the contrary relied on the following oft-quoted metaphor:

"Being free to engage in unlimited political expression subject to a ceiling on expenditures is like being free to drive an automobile as far and as often as one desires on a single tank of gasoline."

But, of course, while a car cannot run without fuel, a candidate can speak without spending money. And while a car can only travel so many miles per gallon, there is no limit on the number of speeches or interviews a candidate may give on a limited budget. Moreover, provided that this budget is above a certain threshold, a candidate can exercise due care to ensure that her message reaches all voters. Just as a driver need not use a Hummer to reach her destination, so a candidate need not flood the airways with ceaseless sound-bites of trivial information in order to provide voters with reasons to support her.

Indeed, the examples of effective speech in the political arena that did not depend on any significant expenditure by the campaigner are legion. It was the content of William Jennings Bryan's comments on the "Cross of Gold"--and William McKinley's responses delivered from his front porch in Canton, Ohio--rather than any expenditure of money that appealed to their cost-free audiences. Neither Abraham Lincoln nor John F. Kennedy paid for the opportunity to engage in the debates with Stephen Douglas and Richard Nixon that may well have determined the outcomes of Presidential elections. When the seasoned campaigners who were Members of the Congress that endorsed the expenditure limits in the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974 concluded that a modest budget would not preclude them from effectively communicating with the electorate, they necessarily rejected the Buckley metaphor.

These campaigners also identified significant government interests favoring the imposition of expenditure limits. Not only do these limits serve as an important complement to corruption-reducing contribution limits, but they also "protect equal access to the political arena, [and] free candidates and their staffs from the interminable burden of fundraising." These last two interests are particularly acute. When campaign costs are so high that only the rich have the reach to throw their hats into the ring, we fail "to protect the political process from undue influence of large aggregations of capital and to promote individual responsibility for democratic government." States have recognized this problem, but Buckley's perceived ban on expenditure limits severely limits their options in dealing with it.

The interest in freeing candidates from the fundraising straitjacket is even more compelling. Without expenditure limits, fundraising devours the time and attention of political leaders, leaving them too busy to handle their public responsibilities effectively. . . .

Additionally, there is no convincing evidence that these important interests favoring expenditure limits are fronts for incumbency protection. . . .

One final point bears mention. Neither the opinions in Buckley nor those that form today's cacophony pay heed to how the Framers would have viewed candidate expenditure limits. . . .

. . . I am firmly persuaded that the Framers would have been appalled by the impact of modern fundraising practices on the ability of elected officials to perform their public responsibilities. I think they would have viewed federal statutes limiting the amount of money that congressional candidates might spend in future elections as well within Congress' authority. And they surely would not have expected judges to interfere with the enforcement of expenditure limits that merely require candidates to budget their activities without imposing any restrictions whatsoever on what they may say in their speeches, debates, and interviews.

For the foregoing reasons, I agree with Justice Souter that it would be entirely appropriate to allow further proceedings on expenditure limits to go forward in these cases. . . . I also agree that Vermont's contribution limits and presumption of coordinated expenditures by political parties are constitutional, and so join those portions of his opinion.


In 1997, the Legislature of Vermont passed Act 64 after a series of public hearings persuaded legislators that rehabilitating the State's political process required campaign finance reform. A majority of the Court today decides that the expenditure and contribution limits enacted are irreconcilable with the Constitution's guarantee of free speech. I would adhere to the Court of Appeals's decision to remand for further enquiry bearing on the limitations on candidates' expenditures, and I think the contribution limits satisfy controlling precedent. I respectfully dissent. . . .

The legislature's findings are surely significant enough to justify the Court of Appeals's remand to the District Court to decide whether Vermont's spending limits are the least restrictive means of accomplishing what the court unexceptionably found to be worthy objectives. The District Court was instructed to examine a variety of outstanding issues, including alternatives considered by Vermont's Legislature and the reasons for rejecting them. Thus, the constitutionality of the expenditure limits was not conclusively decided by the Second Circuit, and I believe the evidentiary work that remained to be done would have raised the prospect for a sound answer to that question, whatever the answer might have been. Instead, we are left with an unresolved question of narrow tailoring and with consequent doubt about the justifiability of the spending limits as necessary and appropriate correctives. This is not the record on which to foreclose the ability of a State to remedy the impact of the money chase on the democratic process. I would not, therefore, disturb the Court of Appeals's stated intention to remand.

Although I would defer judgment on the merits of the expenditure limitations, I believe the Court of Appeals correctly rejected the challenge to the contribution limits. Low though they are, one cannot say that "the contribution limitation[s are] 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." Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC (2000).

The limits /set by Vermont are not remarkable departures either from those previously upheld by this Court or from those lately adopted by other States. . . .

To place Vermont's contribution limits beyond the constitutional pale . . . is to forget . . . our self-admonition against second-guessing legislative judgments about the risk of corruption to which contribution limits have to be fitted. And deference here would surely not be overly complaisant. Vermont's legislators themselves testified at length about/ the money that gets their special attention. . . . The record revealed the amount of money the public sees as suspiciously large. And testimony identified the amounts high enough to pay for effective campaigning in a State where the cost of running tends to be on the low side.

Still, our cases do not say deference should be absolute. We can all imagine dollar limits that would be laughable. . . . The plurality thinks that point has been reached in Vermont, and in particular that the low contribution limits threaten the ability of challengers to run effective races against incumbents. Thus, the plurality's limit of deference is substantially a function of suspicion that political incumbents in the legislature set low contribution limits because their public recognition and easy access to free publicity will effectively augment their own spending power beyond anything a challenger can muster. The suspicion is, in other words, that incumbents cannot be trusted to set fair limits, because facially neutral limits /do not in fact give challengers an even break. But this received suspicion is itself a proper subject of suspicion. The petitioners offered, and the plurality invokes, no evidence that the risk of a pro-incumbent advantage has been realized. . . . The Legislature of Vermont evidently tried to account for the realities of campaigning in Vermont, and I see no evidence of constitutional miscalculation sufficient to dispense with respect for its judgment. . . .

Because I would not pass upon the constitutionality of Vermont's expenditure limits prior to further enquiry into their fit with the problem of fundraising demands on candidates, and because I do not see the contribution limits as depressed to the level of political inaudibility, I respectfully dissent.