Buckley v. Valeo: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Do campaign donations qualify as speech?

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In Buckley v. Valeo (1976) the United States Supreme Court held that several key provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act were unconstitutional. The decision became known for tying campaign donations and expenditures to Freedom of Speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Fast Facts: Buckley v. Valeo

  • Case Argued: November 9, 1975
  • Decision Issued: January 29, 1976
  • Petitioner: Senator James L. Buckley
  • Respondent: The Federal Election Commission and Secretary of the Senate, Francis R. Valeo
  • Key Questions: Did changes to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and related Internal Revenue Code violate the First or Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist
  • Dissenting: Justices Burger and Stevens
  • Ruling: Yes and no. The Court drew a distinction between contributions and expenditures, ruling that only limits on the former could be constitutional.

Facts of the Case

In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA), legislation aimed at increasing public disclosures of campaign contributions and electoral transparency. Former President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law in 1972. Two years later, Congress opted to overhaul the bill. They added in several amendments which created strict limitations on campaign contributions and expenditures. The 1974 amendments created the Federal Elections Commission to oversee and enforce campaign finance regulations and prevent campaign abuses. By passing the reforms, Congress sought to weed out corruption. The regulations were regarded as the “most comprehensive reform ever passed” by Congress. Some of the key provisions accomplished the following:

  1. Limited individual or group contributions to political candidates to $1,000; contributions by a political action committee to $5,000; and capped overall annual contributions by any single person to $25,000
  2. Limited individual or group expenditures to $1,000 per candidate per election
  3. Limited how much a candidate or a candidate's family could contribute from personal funds.
  4. Restricted overall primary campaign expenditures to specific amounts, depending on the political office
  5. Required political committees to keep records of campaign contributions that totaled more than $10. If the contribution was for more than $100, the political committee was also required to record the occupation and principal place of business of the contributor.
  6. Required political committees to file quarterly reports with the Federal Election Commission, disclosing the sources of every contribution over $100.
  7. Created the Federal Election Commission and developed guidelines for appointing members

Key elements were immediately challenged in court. Senator James L. Buckley and Senator Eugene McCarthy filed suit. They, along with other political actors who joined them in the suit, argued that the amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 (and related changes to the Internal Revenue Code) had violated the First and Fifth Amendments of the U.S Constitution. They aimed to get a declaratory judgment from the court, finding that the reforms were unconstitutional, and an injunction in order to prevent the reforms from taking effect. The plaintiffs were denied both requests and they appealed. In its ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld nearly all of the reforms with respect to contributions, expenditures, and disclosures. The Court of Appeals also upheld the creation of the Federal Elections Commission. The Supreme Court took the case on appeal.

Constitutional Issues

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” The Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause prevents the government from depriving someone of fundamentals liberties without due process of law. Did Congress violate the First and Fifth Amendments when it restricted campaign spending? Are campaign contributions and expenditures considered “speech”?

Arguments

Attorneys representing those opposing the regulations argued that Congress had disregarded the importance of campaign contributions as a form of speech. “Limiting the use of money for political purposes amounts to restricting the communication itself,” they wrote in their brief. Political contributions are, “a means for contributors to express their political ideas and the necessary prerequisite for candidates for federal office to communicate their views to voters.” The Court of Appeals failed to give the reforms “the critical scrutiny requisite under long-accepted First Amendment principles.” The reforms would offer an overall chilling effect on speech, the attorneys argued.

Attorneys representing those in favor of the regulations argued that the legislation had legitimate and compelling goals: to reduce corruption from financial support; restore public trust in the government by decreasing the effect of money on elections; and benefit democracy by ensuring that all citizens are able to participate in the electoral process equally. The impact of the legislation on free association and freedom of speech was “minimal” and outweighed by the aforementioned government interests, the attorneys found.

Per Curiam Opinion

The Court issued a per curiam opinion, which translates to an opinion “by the court.” In a per curiam opinion, the Court collectively authors a decision, rather than a single justice.

The Court upheld limitations on contributions but ruled that limitations on expenditures were unconstitutional. Both had potential First Amendment implications because they impacted political expression and association. However, the Court decided that limiting individual campaign contributions could have important legislative interests. If someone donates to a campaign, it is a “general expression of support for the candidate,” the Court found. The size of the donation gives at most a "rough index of the contributor's support for the candidate." Capping the amount of money someone may donate serves an important government interest because it reduces the appearance of any quid pro quo, also known as the exchange of money for political favors.

FECA’s expenditure limits, however, did not serve the same government interest. Expenditure limits constituted a violation of the First Amendment Freedom of Speech, the Court found. Virtually every means of communication during a campaign costs money. Rallies, flyers, and commercials all represent significant costs for a campaign, the Court noted. Limiting the amount a campaign or candidate may spend on these forms of communication limits the candidate’s ability to speak freely. This means that campaign expenditure caps significantly reduce discussion and debate between members of the public. The Court added that expenditures did not have the same appearance of impropriety that donating large sums of money to a campaign did.

The Court also rejected FECA’s process for appointing members of the Federal Election Commission. FECA’s statutes allowed Congress to appoint members of the Federal Election Commission, rather than the President. The Court ruled this as an unconstitutional delegation of power.

Dissenting Opinion

In his dissent, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger argued that limiting contributions infringed on First Amendment freedoms. Chief Justice Burger opined that the contribution caps are just as unconstitutional as expenditures limits. The campaign process has always been private, he wrote, and FECA demonstrates an unconstitutional intrusion on it.

Impact

Buckley v. Valeo laid the groundwork for future Supreme Court cases regarding campaign finances. Several decades later, the Court cited Buckley v. Valeo in another landmark campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In that ruling, the Court found that corporations could contribute to campaigns using money from their general treasuries. Prohibiting such action, the Court ruled, would be a violation of the First Amendment freedom of speech.

Sources

  • Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
  • Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  • Neuborne, Burt. “Campaign Finance Reform & the Constitution: A Critical Look at Buckley v. Valeo.” Brennan Center for Justice, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, 1 Jan. 1998, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/campaign-finance-reform-constitution-critical-look-buckley-v-valeo.
  • Gora, Joel M. “The Legacy of Buckley v. Valeo.” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy, vol. 2, no. 1, 2003, pp. 55–67., doi:10.1089/153312903321139031.