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High Court Rules Against State Campaign Finance Law

June 26, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Entering this final week of this year’s term, the Supreme Court today struck down one state’s limits on campaign finance, upheld another state’s application of the death penalty, and stepped into the debate over global warming.

Here to explain the why’s and the how’s, as always, is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Journal.

Marcia, let’s start with the campaign finance case. We had talked about this, I think you and I, in February on this program.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: When it was argued, yes.

GWEN IFILL: When it was argued. And they basically said, as they indicated even then, that Vermont had put too low a limit on what people could give and on what these campaigns could spend.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct, Gwen. And, in fact, Justice Breyer said lower is not always better, that limits that are too low on campaign contributions can harm the electoral process. And that’s what he found in this case.

This case really had two parts. Vermont put limits on spending by candidates, and then it put limits on contributions to candidates. The court today basically applied on both sections of that a 1976 landmark decision, Buckley v. Valeo.

And in that decision, the court said, essentially, limits on campaign spending are not constitutional, but limits on campaign contributions are. And the difference is spending gets too close to speech, core political speech.

Today, the court applied Buckley to the Vermont spending limits, said stare decisis, which means the court stands by all decisions, applies here, because Vermont has not shown us any evidence that undermines that part of Buckley.

And also, on the limits, it found that the limits were much too low, and it looked at a number of factors here in making that, reaching that conclusion. It said, for example, that the limits were so low that it inhibited effective advocacy by candidates, particularly challengers to incumbents. They couldn’t raise enough money to mount effective campaigns.

It also muted the voices of political parties who faced the same limits, in terms of what they could give. And it hampered volunteers whose services would count against a contribution limit.

Six justices agreed with decision

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
That being said, no one knows how low you can go, and there may be additional litigation around the country as states experiment with how low the limits can be on contributions.

GWEN IFILL: So in the court's reasoning -- and there were six separate opinions, I gather, written with this.

MARCIA COYLE: Very splintered decision.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, and with the court -- why was that?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, it's because of how they feel about Buckley after all these years. You had six justices here who agreed on the result, that the Vermont law should fall, but they agreed for different reasons.

Justices Scalia and Thomas believed that Buckley ought to be overruled, that there should be no limits on spending or contributions. Justice Breyer does believe there should be limits on contributions, and he was joined by the chief justice and Justice Alito.

GWEN IFILL: Is this a broad effect, or is it just Vermont, because Vermont was the one that had this especially strict set of laws?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the immediate impact is on Vermont. I mean, their lawmakers will have to go back to the drawing board if they want to put new limits, but I think a longer-range impact here is that it also shows there's a strong majority on the court to have limits on campaign contributions.

That being said, no one knows how low you can go, and there may be additional litigation around the country as states experiment with how low the limits can be on contributions.

What about Alito and Roberts?

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
[Justice Thomas] said the court has never held there has to be a method of balancing aggravating and mitigating factors. Here Kansas did what it was supposed to do, and it directs the jury when they are in equipoise to impose death.

GWEN IFILL: Did this ruling today tell us anything about the two newest members of the court, Justices Alito and Roberts?

MARCIA COYLE: It was a big question mark where they stood on this whole issue of limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, so we know now, at least with Chief Justice Roberts, he joined Justice Breyer's opinion in applying Buckley. Justice Alito also joined, but he said he would not have reached the question of whether Buckley should be overruled, but he did join in Justice Breyer's analysis.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Come with me to Kansas...

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

GWEN IFILL: ... where the court ruled in a death penalty case. In this case, basically that they feel that aggravating factors that have been brought before a jury in a death penalty case can outweigh mitigating factors, in this case, a really horrific crime.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: They can count that and say that person deserves the death penalty. And all things being equal, they can lean in favor of the death penalty. Is that correct?

MARCIA COYLE: It's close.

GWEN IFILL: Close.

MARCIA COYLE: Like Vermont, Kansas has sort of a unique death penalty law, and it puts the burden on prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there are aggravating factors warranting death, and they also have a burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that mitigating factors don't outweigh the aggravating factors.

The Kansas Supreme Court said: Well, if you read this the way it's written, that means that, when mitigating and aggravating factors are in equipoise, the jury has to impose death. The Kansas Supreme Court said that doesn't comply with the Eighth Amendment. A tie should be in favor of the defendant; it should be in favor of life.

But the Supreme Court today, in a 5-4 decision, disagreed. Justice Thomas wrote the decision, and he basically said a state's death penalty sentencing statute has to do two things: It has to narrow the category of people rationally who are eligible for the death sentence; and it has to permit juries to consider all mitigating circumstances.

He said the court has never held there has to be a method of balancing aggravating and mitigating factors. Here Kansas did what it was supposed to do, and it directs the jury when they are in equipoise to impose death.

Efficacy of the death penalty

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
[Justice Scalia] said Justice Souter couldn't point to one case in which it was clear that someone innocent had been executed, and it was not for this court to make a judgment, a moral judgment, on the rightness of the death penalty.

GWEN IFILL: And as in all cases that get to the court, there is a human being involved here who has been appealing this back and forth up the chain. And what happens to him now?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, he lost his case at the Supreme Court, which means the statute is....

GWEN IFILL: Remind us what his case was.

MARCIA COYLE: All right. He was appealing -- he claimed that the death penalty sentencing statute was unconstitutional. And it is not unconstitutional, according to the Supreme Court. So he will be sentenced.

GWEN IFILL: For killing his....

MARCIA COYLE: He killed a woman and her 19-month-old toddler. It was a very brutal death.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Now, what happens here, though, is that it seems to me that in the -- and you must again tell me whether I'm close...

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

GWEN IFILL: ... that, in the decisions today, the justices were arguing among themselves about something broader than just this case, but also about the efficacy of the death penalty itself...

(CROSSTALK)

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, exactly. Justice Souter wrote a dissent, and he not only felt that the court was wrong on the holding here, because he said it made no moral sense to rule that a tie would be held in favor of death instead of life, because jurors are supposed to make individualized determinations. And this takes it away from that kind of individualized determination.

Death turned, in this case, under this statute, on whether it was the factors were in equipoise, not on the character of the defendant.

But he also said that death is different today in a different way than it was when the court reinstated the death penalty. There's been a lot of evidence about people exonerated on death row, and he felt that the court now has to look at these aggravating and mitigating factors in a different light, and it's morally obtuse to allow a balanced situation like this to go in favor of death.

Justice Scalia countered with a lengthy comment on the evidence of innocence. He said Justice Souter couldn't point to one case in which it was clear that someone innocent had been executed, and it was not for this court to make a judgment, a moral judgment, on the rightness of the death penalty.

The debate on global warming

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
And even if the law did say EPA had authority to regulate it, the Bush administration believes that volunteer efforts to regulate car emissions and power plant emissions are more effective than a mandatory regulation.

GWEN IFILL: And the backdrop of it all, this is these DNA cases we have heard.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, exactly.

GWEN IFILL: The court decided today to step into the debate on global warming. Why? We never know why, but how?

MARCIA COYLE: OK. Twelve states and a number of cities and environmental groups asked the court to step in. A lower court had ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency was not required to regulate carbon dioxide, which is considered the major greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

EPA had decided it was not a pollutant that was required to be regulated under the Clean Water Act. These groups now want the court to review that ruling.

The Bush administration says carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. And even if the law did say EPA had authority to regulate it, the Bush administration believes that volunteer efforts to regulate car emissions and power plant emissions are more effective than a mandatory regulation.

GWEN IFILL: So, essentially, if the court steps in, they might start a whole lot of dominos falling on this?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. It's a huge environmental case.

GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle, thanks, as always.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.