Vermont sidesteps Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance

The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down certain limits on federal campaign contributions, The New York Times reported.

The Court ruled that it is unconstitutional, under the First Amendment, to limit the total amount of money an individual can give to candidates, political action committees and parties.

The 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission strikes down caps on aggregate amounts of cash individuals can give to federal candidates, and constitutional scholars say the decision sets a precedent for state candidates as well.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that only “quid pro quo corruption” could restrict the First Amendment rights of citizens to “choose who shall govern them.”

It’s the most important ruling on campaign finance since the 2010 Citizens United case, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on “independent expenditures” (typically polls, ads and mailings) to influence elections. Money, the court has ruled, is tantamount to free speech.

The Vermont Legislature approved new campaign finance rules this year as the McCutcheon case was under consideration. Lawmakers included an escape clause for a cap on aggregate limits in the law, pending the results of the case. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill into law early this session.

Act 90 puts an aggregate limit of $40,000 on contributions from “single sources” to candidates or parties. The McCutcheon ruling allows limitless aggregate contributions from an individual to candidates, PACs and parties.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, chair of House Government Operations, which shaped the legislation, said the decision is very discouraging.

“I do believe money is the biggest factor in elections and it keeps piling up,” Sweaney said. “The more money you have, the better your chances and the more people you know with money, the better your chances. It’s a feeding frenzy I see in Washington.”

Cheryl Hanna, a professor of constitutional law at the Vermont Law School, says lawmakers were wise to put a contingency plan in state statute.

“It was a good example of the state Legislature paying attention to what is happening in federal constitutional law and crafting a statute that would survive in this case was a well thought out strategy,” Hanna said.

The ruling shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching the Supreme Court since the Sorrell decision in 2006 when the state’s limits on campaign contributions were struck down, she said.

The McCutcheon case isn’t as far sweeping as Citizens United, Hanna said, it is just another example of the court refraining from limiting the ability of individuals to give money to PACs and candidates

The ruling will only affect a handful of people “who are able to make that kind of spend,” Hanna said. The ability of people of means to influence elections, she said, “will likely be magnified by this decision.”

The question, she said, is whether larger amounts of campaign money is changing the outcome of elections and the outcome of policy decisions.

The other concern people have about the decision, Hanna said, is whether voters will have a much smaller voice in the process.

“The other thing people worry about — even if this money isn’t influencing elections — is whether it creates the appearance that the democratic process has been hijacked by people with significant means,” Hanna said.

If it appears that unlimited contributions undermine democracy, she said an argument could be made that it infringes on free speech.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly supported campaign finance disclosure laws, Hanna says. Congress and state Legislatures could adopt much more stringent rules around disclosure without running afoul of free speech precedents.

“That was notable,” Hanna said. “While the majority struck down limits they reiterated support for disclosure.”

Hanna said the Court did not consider campaign finance limits for candidates in this ruling and left open the possibility that they could strike down caps on giving to politicians in a future decision.

Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were quick to condemn the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling in separate statements:


[The Supreme Court Wednesday issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 decision, the Court, once again, reversed long-standing precedent and declared aggregate limits on campaign contributions in elections to be unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment.]

“Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its controversial Citizens United decision, five justices once again have decided to rule on the side of moneyed interests and against the American people.

“As Justice Breyer warned in his dissent, ‘Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.’ I could not agree with him more.

“With this latest shock to our electoral system, the divided Roberts court again chose to dismantle campaign finance laws which had protected hardworking Americans for decades. This ruling will empower billionaires to drown out the voices of everyday Americans in all future campaigns, threatening all states, and especially smaller states like Vermont. It is yet another blow to a democracy for all Americans. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I intend to hold a hearing about the impact of these alarming Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated our campaign finance laws.”


“Freedom of speech, in my view, does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government.

“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in? To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

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  • Jim Christiansen

    Bold comments from men with buldging campaign coffers, franking privileges, exempt health care, and government pensions.

    Bold indeed gentlemen. Excelsior!

    • Paul Richards

      I agree. They never mention how much they are getting paid off by the corrupt public sector unions that we all pay for with our tax dollars or the lies spread around the globe by george sorros. After all it was george who greatly helped a person who is not remotely qualified to be President, get elected, two times! He drives the liberal agenda. Leahy and Sanders; two real good examples of why we need term limits.

      • Walter Carpenter

        “After all it was george who greatly helped a person who is not remotely qualified to be President, get elected, two times! ”

        And it was billionaires like the Koch Brothers and their ilk who helped a person even less qualified than the person you say is not remotely qualified (which I do not believe) hijack an election in Florida in 2000.

        • Paul Richards

          So the Koch Brothers hijacked an election in Florida in 2000?
          Interesting concept Walter but that’s all it is, a mental representation that exists only in ones mind.

  • Wayne Andrews

    The answer to the liberals bashing this decision is education of the voter.
    I wonder if Sanders and Leahy believe there should also be caps on how much these wealthy people donate to charity? if it wasn’t for the Koch brothers a very large hospital in new York may not be operating.

  • Senator Peter Galbraith

    Vermont has no limits on political contributions this year. The legislature repealed the limits when it enacted a new (and, in my view very flawed) campaign finance bill effective next year.

    The House passed a bill to reinstate the limits but it seems unlikely to come up in the senate. If it does, senators will have to vote on whether to ban corporate contributions and whether to limit the amounts that political parties can contribute to candidates.

    Vermont allows corporations to contribute directly to candidates, a practice banned for federal candidates since 1907. The Conference Committee on the new campaign finance bill snuck in a provision allowing individuals and corporations to contribute $10,000 to political parties (this was much higher than either the House or Senate version) and for parties to make unlimited contributions to candidates.

    The powers that be apparently prefer no limits this year to having to make uncomfortable votes on these issues.

    In sum, the Vermont legislature is outraged by the Supreme Court’s decision on limits! But not so outraged as to reinstate Vermont’s contribution limits.

  • Frank Chance

    Jim, regardless of their election funds and job benefits they work for us and in this case they speak for me on this topic. I agree with their comments 100%.

    • Jim Christiansen

      Sadly, our Senators actions do not mirror their hyperbole. They are happy members of a protected class, and are actively involved in maintaining that status.

      Their laments on money in politics, while maintaining million dollar war chests for the sole purpose of preventing competition of ideas, is disgusting.

      Sorry, but I can’t support that even 1%.

      • Walter Carpenter

        “Their laments on money in politics, while maintaining million dollar war chests for the sole purpose of preventing competition of ideas, is disgusting.”

        Perhaps these war chests would not be needed if we as a nation could stand up to the Koch brothers, and finally have the courage to stop the big money from buying our political process. Citizens United and this new idiocy just allowed the 1% to essentially purchase even more of it.

        • Paul Richards

          Why do you guys always site the Koch brothers as an example of money in politics? At lease they have an interest in trying to bring this country back to its founding principals which is a lot more than I can say about george soros and the prinsipals of sal alinsky. One of george’s latest investments is $80 Million to promote legalization of Dope. That’s a lofty cause. That’s going to really help us rise to the top of society. Why do you think they call it Dope?

  • Chris Roy

    First, this ruling does not affect the Congress’s or the Vermont Legislature’s ability to reasonably limit contributions to individual candidates or traditional PACs. Second, this ruling in no way limits campaign finance disclosure laws. Instead, this decision only removes umbrella caps regarding overall contributions by an individual in the national political arena, while maintaining limits on contributions to campaigns and traditional PACs. As a society, we have two choices — focus on campaign finance disclosure as the best way forward (sunshine and education), or amend the U.S. Constitution to make clear that expressing one’s political views through political contributions do not constitute speech for First Amendment purposes.

    • Jason Wells

      Chris, As to your second choice to amend the Constitution by many counts Michigan having recently submitted an application for an Article V Convention became the 34th State to do so and thereby Congress is required to call the Convention. In my view they would rather impose martial law than allow it to go forward but in the next few weeks we will see just who it is that they work for and I would bet its not us!

    • Rob Bast

      With this SCOTUS decision, transparency/ disclosure/education is indeed the best remaining resource for the public benefit. If people can see clearly who is giving and who is getting funding, the fourth and fifth estates can use that information effectively. A massive amount of money going to one candidate can be a red flag to the voter, and can aid her/his opposition. Focus legislative effort on making this happen, yes.

  • Ron Pulcer

    Regarding: “Money, the court has ruled, is tantamount to free speech”.

    While the Constitution provides for “freedom of speech”, it does guarantee a “right to be heard”.

    While I don’t agree with Citizen’s United and McCutcheon, there are several things we can do in the upcoming election cycle.

    At the start of a campaign season, I often listen to some or most ads that appear on TV or radio…

    1) But after I can associate which are negative versus positive (informational) ads, and from whom or where they are coming from, I use the “three strikes” rule. Once a candidate’s or campaign’s or party’s ads make three (3) statements that bend the truth meter (which can happen easily in election season), that candidate or party goes “off my radar”. I don’t hear you …

    2) We can choose to “mute” the TV, radio or computer speakers when a political ad invades our personal space.

    3) We can change the channel.

    4) Only donate to new candidates. Incumbents have a record to run on, and if people are paying attention, do we really need to be subjected to political ads? Granted, not everyone is paying attention all the time. But I learn more about elected officials from VTDigger or C-SPAN than I do from political ads, whether negative or positive, true or untrue.

    5) If you donate to a new candidate, and if they have aligned themselves with either the Democratic or Republican parties, first ask them “WHY?”. The answer(s) might be obvious. But is it because they think it is the “only” way they can win (i.e. I need the Party Dollars), or is because they actually truly are believers in the Party Doctrine? It would be interesting to find out what new candidates think, and I intend to ask this year (there might be some new faces running in my town).

    p.s. The Mute button also works for el-Supremo Court Jesters, … The Robert’s Barons.



  • Walter Carpenter

    “The Robert’s Barons.”

    Good one:) They are that and more.

  • If money is speech, than the lack of money is the lack of speech. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law. Since I do have the money nor the ability to raise the money that wealthy individuals and super pacs have shouldn’t the RATS (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia) come up with some mechanism to ensure that I have the same amount of speech as the Kochs, Adelson, Soros, et al.

  • Jim Barrett

    Thanks Sanders for mentioning a couple of conservatives who happen to be welathy while ignoring the millions donated by Soros…….a total fabrication to mislead the public like that but then again you are a millionaire socialist !

  • What is happening to our democracy? We are being bought out by the highest bidders, liberal or conservative. Way back in the ’50’s when I was in college, I remember studying how the advent of television and advertisements would affect our nation. One of my courses was called “Public Opinion and Propaganda”. I sometimes wonder if that is all we are getting now; propaganda from all sides.
    How about making public funding of campaigns a requirement? Let’s get money out of politics all together! Money is not equivalent to speech and we should not have to BUY our elections! We now have “the best government money can buy”. I believe! Inequality for All is a certain reality in our enlightened 21st century! Corporations are not people. Whatever happened to one person one vote and the right of free speech for every person, not every corporation and billionaire, only?
    It is certainly a sad, sad day for our wonderful country…..