26 States Ask Supreme Court to Reverse 1976 Ruling that Struck Limits on Campaign Spending
Miller: "Unlimited campaign spending threatens public confidence in the election process."
DES MOINES-- Twenty-six State Attorneys General led by Tom Miller of Iowa filed a friend-of-the-court brief late Monday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its 1976 ruling that mandatory campaign spending limitations are unconstitutional.
The case poses the first direct opportunity for the Court to revisit Buckley v. Valeo, the 22-year-old ruling which held that spending limits for Congressional campaigns were unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
In Buckley, the Court let stand the familiar campaign contribution limits that remain in effect today, but spending limits were unconstitutional, the Court held, because they were not necessary to uphold the integrity of the electoral process.
"We argue that the experience of the last twenty years proves that contribution limits alone categorically have not lifted the taint of corruption of big money in politics," said Iowa Attorney General Miller.
"Campaign spending has soared at almost every level, from city council to U.S. Senate races," he said. "Unlimited campaign spending threatens public confidence in the election process. Legislatures at every level should not be barred from considering whether spending limits are necessary to protect the electoral process."
The Buckley decision has been cited to bar legislative attempts to limit campaign expenditures at various levels. The States submitted their brief in support of the City of Cincinnati, which adopted an ordinance in 1995 setting limits on spending for city council campaigns. The spending limit was struck down by a federal district court citing the Buckley ruling, in a case called Kruse v. Cincinnati. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court ruling.
"Now we finally are presenting this issue to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Miller, who has led the group of states in several prior actions seeking reconsideration of the Buckley ruling.
"We all seek a system that is open and clean and free of suspicion," Miller said, "but we believe the Court should revisit Buckley v. Valeo to help us get there."
Miller noted that campaign expenditures for all races in 1996 were forty percent above the amount spent just four years earlier in a comparable election year, and he said spending appears headed for another record this year.
"The astronomical increase in campaign spending was not anticipated by the Supreme Court in 1976," Miller said, "but it is a direct consequence of the Court's ruling. We argue that the Court should reconsider its finding in 1976 that campaign contribution limits alone would suffice to protect the integrity and public respect for our election process."
The Attorneys General also urged the Court to consider what effect unlimited campaign spending has on office-holders who are candidates. "My colleagues and I -- almost all of us elected officials ourselves -- emphasize in our brief the importance of assuring that the demands of fundraising not drain the time and attention elected officials need to carry out their duties," Miller said. "Public servants at every level can be unduly diverted from their official duties by the need to raise enormous amounts of campaign funds."
Miller noted that U.S. Senators generally must raise about $15,000 a week to remain competitive, and U.S. representatives must raise about $6500 per week.
Attorneys General from these states joined the amicus: AZ, CT, FL, HI, ID, IN, IA, KS, MA, MI, MN, MO, MT, NH, NM, NV, NC, ND, OH, OK, SD, UT, TX, VT, WA, WV.
Background on the Cincinnati case:
In July 1995, the City of Cincinnati enacted an ordinance setting mandatory limits on campaign expenditures in city council races. The ordinance sets the campaign spending limits at three times the annual salary for a city council member, or approximately $140,000. The city's action followed several years of dramatic increases in campaign spending for its city council elections. The highest candidate expenditure rose more than 480 per cent in six years, from $75,000 in 1989, to $362,000 in 1995. A new spending record was set in the 1995 campaigns, with overall total spending of $2.33 million, compared to total spending of $990,000 only six years earlier.
John Kruse, a former city council candidate who spent more than $200,000 in the 1995 election cycle, and two contributors filed suit against the ordinance in March 1996 on Buckley grounds. The Solicitor's office of the City of Cincinnati retained the National Voting Rights Institute as co-lead counsel to mount an aggressive defense of the city ordinance. The Supreme Court appeal follows lower court rulings which invalidated the spending limits on Buckley grounds.
Miller said it is time for the Supreme Court to revisit the matter and either distinguish Buckley on new facts or reverse itself. He noted, for example, that the Court reversed itself in the issue of poll tax rulings. After upholding the poll tax in decisions spanning several decades, the Court in 1966 reversed itself and struck down the poll tax as unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
"We've reached another landmark," Miller said. "We strongly believe the Court should revisit this matter and strike a blow for restoring public confidence in our election process."
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