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Supreme Court Rejects First Amendment Challenge to Party Spending Limits

In a very close decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold party limits on coordinated expenditures. Justice Souter, joined by Justices Stevens, O’Connor, Ginsburg and Breyer, wrote for the majority. In Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee (No. 00-191), the Court rejected the party’s facial challenge to the limits on its coordinated expenditures. The Court found that limiting coordinated spending by a party does not impose a unique First Amendment burden on parties and that coordinated expenditures of unlimited money donated to a party dilute and therefore undermine the contribution limits.

This ruling comes 15 years after the Supreme Court found in an earlier version of the same case that independent expenditure limits on political parties were unconstitutional as applied. The Court remanded the party’s broader claim that all expenditures, including coordinated ones, are facially unconstitutional and thus invalid. The party’s claims were successful on remand and the 10th Circuit affirmed.

In reversing the lower courts, the Supreme Court found unpersuasive the party’s argument that the First Amendment is implicated to its fullest when a political party’s ability to finance its own political speech, either through independent or coordinated expenditures, is restricted. The Court was persuaded by the government’s position that unlimited coordinated spending raises the risk of corruption, including the appearance of such, through sidestepping the existing contribution limits.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy and in part by Justice Rehnquist, dissented on grounds that the party coordinated spending limit "sweeps too broadly, interferes with the party-candidate relationship, and has not been proved necessary to combat corruption . . .." Justice Thomas even goes so far as to appropriately call for the overruling of the Court’s seminal 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which held that contribution limits were okay but expenditure limits violated First Amendment principles.

The significance of this ruling on current Congressional efforts to further tread on First Amendment rights applicable to campaign finance is uncertain. The decision does not deal directly with "soft money" contributions, but the Court does aptly note that "we have routinely struck down limitations on independent expenditures by candidates, other individuals, and groups . . .." In a paper, titled "Campaign Finance and the First Amendment", the Center for Individual Freedom discusses several major aspects of current proposed legislation that run afoul of First Amendment principles applicable to campaign finance. To download a copy of the paper, please click here.

For a copy of the Supreme Court’s decision in Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee, click here.

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