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High Court Rules Against State Campaign Finance Law

In two much-anticipated decisions, the Supreme Court struck down Vermont's stringent campaign finance limits while ruling that the Kansas Supreme Court had improperly ruled the state's death penalty law unconstitutional.

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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.