Skip Navigation

Supreme Court Upholds Campaign Contribution Limit

Brennan Center Successfully Argues That Court Should Respect Missouri Legislature’s $1,075 Limit and Affirm Buckley v. Valeo's Ruling That Contribution Caps Prevent Real and Perceived Corruption

January 25, 2000

For Immediate Release
January 24, 2000

Contact Information:
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6736

Supreme Court Upholds Campaign Contribution Limit
Brennan Center Successfully Argues That Court Should Respect Missouri Legislature’s $1,075 Limit and Affirm Buckley v. Valeo‘s Ruling That Contribution Caps Prevent Real and Perceived Corruption

In ringing language reaffirming broad latitude for legislatures to limit contributions, the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld in a 6–3 decision the constitutionality of Missouri’s $1,075 limit on contributions to candidates for statewide office. “This is a major victory for campaign finance reformers across the country,” said Brennan Center Deputy Director Deborah Goldberg, who was lead counsel for Missouri State Representative Joan Bray, a party in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC. “The Court has given states the green light to adopt reasonable contribution limits.”

The opinion for the Court – written by Justice Souter, and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Stevens, O’Connor, Ginsburg, and Breyer – reaffirms and clarifies the analysis the Supreme Court laid out in 1976 in the landmark case, Buckley v. Valeo. The decision flatly rejected arguments by opponents of campaign finance reform that states cannot adopt the $1,000 limit upheld in Buckley without making adjustments for 24 years of inflation. According to the Court, “the dictates of the First Amendment are not mere functions of the Consumer Price Index.”

The Court also rejected the argument that a state may not enact a contribution limit unless it had hard evidence of actual exchanges of legislative favors for contributions before they can justify contribution limits. According to the Court, states can use contribution limits to address not only actual bribery, but also “the broader threat from politicians too compliant with the wishes of large contributors” and the “perception of impropriety” inherent in a regime of large contributions. “This was really the central legal issue in the case,” said Goldberg, “and we now know for sure that states don’t have to catch elected officials with their hands in the cookie jar before they can enact contribution limits.”

The decision gives states and localities great latitude to decide the appropriate level of contribution limits. In recent years, several lower federal courts had invalidated limits in the range of $100, $300, or even $500 per election on the ground that they were too low. Now, the Supreme Court has explained that such limits are constitutional unless they 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

Four justices wrote separate opinions. Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) wrote concurring opinions, and Justice Kennedy and Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Scalia) wrote dissents. Justice Stevens wrote to make the point that “Money is property; money is not speech.” In his view, the Constitution does not protect the use of money to the same extent that it protects the use of ideas.

Justice Breyer agreed, while recognizing that money enables speech. As a consequence, campaign finance is an area “where constitutionally protected interests lie on both sides of the legal equation.” He emphasized that contribution limits “aim to democratize the influence that money itself may bring to bear upon the electoral process” – the process “through which a free society translates political speech into concrete governmental action.” Most importantly, he is ready to relax Buckley‘s holding barring limits on expenditures or to overrule that case if necessary to ensure a comprehensive solution to the problems presented by campaign finance.

Justice Thomas takes the majority to task for reaffirming and extending Buckley‘s analysis of contribution limits. Under his analysis of the First Amendment, states should be permitted to do no more than punish outright bribery and require disclosure of contributions.

Justice Kennedy is in substantial agreement with Justice Thomas. But Justice Kennedy appears to be concerned principally with the unintended and undesirable practical consequences of the “half-way house” the Supreme Court created in Buckley, when it decided to permit contribution limits while prohibiting limits on expenditures – namely, the influence of soft money and sham issue advocacy. He would overrule Buckley and “free . . . legislatures to attempt some new reform” consistent with the First Amendment. He would leave open the possibility that such a system would include “some limits on both expenditures and contributions, thus permitting officeholders to concentrate their time and efforts on official duties rather than on fundraising.”

Today’s decision will have immediate impact on challenges to contribution limits in the states. Opponents of Maine’s $250 limit on contributions to legislative candidates are taking a challenge to that law to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. “The Nixon case makes it very clear that the district court in Maine did exactly the right thing in upholding the $250 limit,” said Goldberg. “Courts throughout the country should be very reluctant to second-guess legislatures and voters after the Nixon case.”

Click here for more information about the case.