In the landmark Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), the Supreme Court found that statutory limits on campaign contributions were not violations of the First Amendment freedom of expression but that statutory limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional. The decision also upheld disclosure requirements for contributions and expenditures.
FECA imposed greater regulations on election campaigns
In 1974 Congress had amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to impose greater regulation on federal election campaigns. Senator James L. Buckley of New York led a coalition of legislators, candidates, contributors, parties, and political groups in filing suit against the secretary of the Senate, the clerk of the House of Representatives, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC, which the amendment had established) on the ground that the new provisions were unconstitutional.
The suit originated in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking declaratory judgment that the provisions of the act were unconstitutional and asking for an injunction against its enforcement.
The district court transferred the case to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which entered an order en banc remanding the case to the district court for fact-finding and certification of the constitutional issues. On plenary review, a majority of the appeals court mostly rejected the appellants’ constitutional attacks. The appeals court found clear and compelling interests in preserving the integrity of the electoral process, upholding (with only one exception) the substantive provisions of the act with respect to contributions, expenditures, and disclosure and sustaining the constitutionality of the FEC.
Court said contribution ceilings did not violate the First Amendment
In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court stated that it did not find contribution ceilings to be violations of the First Amendment’s free expression clause. Instead, it voted 6-2 in upholding a $1,000 limit on individual contributions to a single candidate, a $5,000 ceiling for PAC contributions to a single candidate, and a $25,000 limitation on all individual contributions for a given year. The Court also upheld the portion of the statute requiring disclosures for all contributions.
Court said restrictions on campaign spending violated the First Amendment
In a vote of 7-1, however, the Court found restrictions on the amount of money that could be spent by a candidate an infringement of free expression. As a result, sections 608(a), (c), and (e)(1) were declared unconstitutional.
In addition to ruling on campaign spending and contributions, the Court upheld the amendment’s record-keeping and disclosure requirements and creation of the FEC, but struck down the manner in which FEC officials were selected. It also approved the federal financing of presidential election campaigns and allowed the voluntary acceptance of spending limits as a prerequisite for a candidate to receive federal funds.
The Court would later uphold aspects of Buckley in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC (2000) and Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont (2003). In giving a constitutional stamp of approval to the regulation of federal campaigns, Buckley lent validity to congressional initiatives aimed at restricting soft money in campaigns. These subsequent reforms, however, have not produced the effect desired by campaign finance reformers.
This article was originally published in 2009. Kyle Scott has taught American Politics and Constitutional Law at several universities and has written five books and a dozen articles in those areas. Kyle currently serves as the Vice Chancellor of Strategic Priorities at Lone Star College. Matthew Kern graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in 2010 and is an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Ohio, focusing on criminal law.