Buckley v. Valeo,
424 U.S. 1 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)

Buckley v. Valeo

No. 75-436

Argued November 10, 1975

Decided January 30, 1976*

424 U.S. 1


The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (Act), as amended in 1974, (a) limits political contributions to candidates for federal elective office by an individual or a group to $1,000 and by a political committee to $5,000 to any single candidate per election, with an over-all annual limitation of $25,000 by an individual contributor; (b) limits expenditures by individuals or groups "relative to a clearly identified candidate" to $1,000 per candidate per election, and by a candidate from his personal or family funds to various specified annual amounts depending upon the federal office sought, and restricts over-all general election and primary campaign expenditures by candidates to various specified amounts, again depending upon the federal office sought; (c) requires political committees to keep detailed records of contributions and expenditures, including the name and address of each individual contributing in excess of $10, and his occupation and

Page 424 U. S. 2

principal place of business if his contribution exceeds $100, and to file quarterly reports with the Federal Election Commission disclosing the source of every contribution exceeding $100 and the recipient and purpose of every expenditure over $100, and also requires every individual or group, other than a candidate or political committee, making contributions or expenditures exceeding $100 "other than by contribution to a political committee or candidate" to file a statement with the Commission; and (d) creates the eight-member Commission as the administering agency with recordkeeping, disclosure, and investigatory functions and extensive rulemaking, adjudicatory, and enforcement powers, and consisting of two members appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate, two by the Speaker of the House, and two by the President (all subject to confirmation by both Houses of Congress), and the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House as ex officio nonvoting members. Subtitle H of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (IRC), as amended in 1974, provides for public financing of Presidential nominating conventions and general election and primary campaigns from general revenues and allocates such funding to conventions and general election campaigns by establishing three categories: (1) "major" parties (those whose candidate received 25% or more of the vote in the most recent election), which receive full funding; (2) "minor" parties (those whose candidate received at least 5% but less than 25% of the votes at the last election), which receive only a percentage of the funds to which the major parties are entitled; and (3) "new" parties (all other parties), which are limited to receipt of post-election funds or are not entitled to any funds if their candidate receives less than 5% of the vote. A primary candidate for the Presidential nomination by a political party who receives more than $5,000 from private sources (counting only the first $250 of each contribution) in each of at least 20 States is eligible for matching public funds. Appellants (various federal officeholders and candidates, supporting political organizations, and others) brought suit against appellees (the Secretary of the Senate, Clerk of the House, Comptroller General, Attorney General, and the Commission) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the above statutory provisions on various constitutional grounds. The Court of Appeals, on certified questions from the District Court, upheld all but one of the statutory provisions. A three-judge District Court upheld the constitutionality of Subtitle H.


Page 424 U. S. 3

1. This litigation presents an Art. III "case or controversy," since the complaint discloses that at least some of the appellants have a sufficient "personal stake" in a determination of the constitutional validity of each of the challenged provisions to present

"a real and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree of a conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts."

Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U. S. 227, 300 U. S. 241. Pp. 424 U. S. 11-12

2. The Act's contribution provisions are constitutional, but the expenditure provisions violate the First Amendment. Pp. 424 U. S. 12-59.

(a) The contribution provisions, along with those covering disclosure, are appropriate legislative weapons against the reality or appearance of improper influence stemming from the dependence of candidates on large campaign contributions, and the ceilings imposed accordingly serve the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process without directly impinging upon the rights of individual citizens and candidates to engage in political debate and discussion. Pp. 424 U. S. 23-38.

(b) The First Amendment requires the invalidation of the Act's independent expenditure ceiling, its limitation on a candidate's expenditures from his own personal funds, and its ceilings on over-all campaign expenditures, since those provisions place substantial and direct restrictions on the ability of candidates, citizens, and associations to engage in protected political expression, restrictions that the First Amendment cannot tolerate. Pp. 424 U. S. 39-59.

3. The Act's disclosure and recordkeeping provisions are constitutional. Pp. 424 U. S. 60-84.

(a) The general disclosure provisions, which serve substantial governmental interests in informing the electorate and preventing the corruption of the political process, are not overbroad insofar as they apply to contributions to minor parties and independent candidates. No blanket exemption for minor parties is warranted, since such parties, in order to prove injury as a result of application to them of the disclosure provisions, need show only a reasonable probability that the compelled disclosure of a party's contributors' names will subject them to threats, harassment, or reprisals in violation of their First Amendment associational rights. Pp. 424 U. S. 64-74.

(b) The provision for disclosure by those who make independent

Page 424 U. S. 4

contributions and expenditures, as narrowly construed to apply only (1) when they make contributions earmarked for political purposes or authorized or requested by a candidate or his agent to some person other than a candidate or political committee and (2) when they make an expenditure for a communication that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate is not unconstitutionally vague and does not constitute a prior restraint, but is a reasonable and minimally restrictive method of furthering First Amendment values by public exposure of the federal election system. Pp. 424 U. S. 74-82.

(c) The extension of the recordkeeping provisions to contributions as small as those just above $10 and the disclosure provisions to contributions above $100 is not, on this record, overbroad, since it cannot be said to be unrelated to the informational and enforcement goals of the legislation. Pp. 424 U. S. 82-84.

4. Subtitle H of the IRC is constitutional. Pp. 424 U. S. 85-109.

(a) Subtitle H is not invalid under the General Welfare Clause but, as a means to reform the electoral process, was clearly a choice within the power granted to Congress by the Clause to decide which expenditures will promote the general welfare. Pp. 424 U. S. 90-92.

(b) Nor does Subtitle H violate the First Amendment. Rather than abridging, restricting, or censoring speech, it represents an effort to use public money to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process. Pp. 424 U. S. 92-93.

(c) Subtitle H, being less burdensome than ballot access regulations and having been enacted in furtherance of vital governmental interests in relieving major party candidates from the rigors of soliciting private contributions, in not funding candidates who lack significant public support, and in eliminating reliance on large private contributions for funding of conventions and campaigns, does not invidiously discriminate against minor and new parties in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 424 U. S. 93-108.

(d) Invalidation of the spending limit provisions of the Act does not render Subtitle H unconstitutional, but the Subtitle is severable from such provisions, and is not dependent upon the existence of a generally applicable expenditure limit. Pp. 424 U. S. 108-109.

5. The Commission's composition as to all but its investigative and informative powers violates Art. II, § 2, cl. 2. With respect to the Commission's powers, all of which are ripe for review,

Page 424 U. S. 5

to enforce the Act, including primary responsibility for bringing civil actions against violators, to make rules for carrying out the Act, to temporarily disqualify federal candidates for failing to file required reports, and to authorize convention expenditures in excess of the specified limits, the provisions of the Act vesting such powers in the Commission and the prescribed method of appointment of members of the Commission to the extent that a majority of the voting members are appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, violate the Appointments Clause, which provides, in pertinent part, that the President shall nominate, and, with the Senate's advice and consent, appoint, all "Officers of the United States," whose appointments are not otherwise provided for, but that Congress may vest the appointment of such inferior officers as it deems proper in the President alone, in the courts, or in the heads of departments. Hence (though the Commission's past acts are accorded de facto validity and a stay is granted permitting it to function under the Act for not more than 30 days), the Commission, as presently constituted, may not, because of that Clause, exercise such powers, which can be exercised only by "Officers of the United States" appointed in conformity with the Appointments Clause, although it may exercise such investigative and informative powers as are in the same category as those powers that Congress might delegate to one of its own committees. Pp. 424 U. S. 109-143.

No. 75-36, 171 U.S.App.D.C. 172, 519 F.2d 821, affirmed in part and reversed in part; No. 75-437, 401 F.Supp. 1235, affirmed.

Per curiam opinion, in the "case or controversy" part of which (post, pp. 424 U. S. 11-12) all participating Members joined; and as to all other Parts of which BRENNAN, STEWART, and POWELL, JJ., joined; MARSHALL, J., joined in all but Part I-C-2; BLACKMUN, J., joined in all but Part I-B; REHNQUIST, J., joined in all but Part III-B-1; BURGER, C.J., joined in Parts I-C and IV (except insofar as it accords de facto validity for the Commission's past acts); and WHITE, J., joined in Part III. BURGER, C.J., post, p. 424 U. S. 235, WHITE, J., post, p. 424 U. S. 257, MARSHALL, J., post, p. 424 U. S. 286, BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 424 U. S. 290, and REHNQUIST, J., post, p. 424 U. S. 290, filed opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

Page 424 U. S. 6

Primary Holding

While the government can limit how much individuals contribute to political campaigns, it cannot place limits on campaign expenditures, expenditures by a candidate from personal resources, or independent expenditures by groups supporting the campaign. This is because the Court equated money with speech in this context, so the First Amendment applies.


In an attempt by Congress to control spending and contributions for political campaigns, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 three years after it was passed. Some of the key provisions included public financing for presidential elections, mandated disclosure for political contributions, limits on contributions to candidates for public office, limits on expenditures by candidates and their committees in most instances, limits on candidate expenditures from their personal funds, and limits on independent expenditures.

The amendments also provided how the eight members of the Federal Election Commission would be appointed. Two would be the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives, who would be non-voting members. Two would be appointed directly by the President. Two more would be appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate after recommendations by its majority and minority leaders. The remaining two would be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives after recommendations by its majority and minority leaders. Both Houses of Congress would be required to confirm each of the six voting members by a majority vote, and the three pairs of voting members needed to each contain a member from each political party.

A group of plaintiffs, including Senator James Buckley, filed a claim in the District of Columbia court against Francis Valeo, who was the Secretary of the Senate and thus a non-voting member of the FEC. Their petitions for declaratory and injunctive relief under the First and Fifth Amendments were initially denied.


Per Curiam

In an opinion not authored by any individual Justice, the Court found that some of the provisions of the Campaign Finance Act were unconstitutional, while others were valid. In general, the provisions that were invalidated were those that:

1) Limited expenditures by candidates from personal funds;
2) Limited expenditures on campaigns by independent entities, who were neither candidates nor political parties; and
3) Arranged a system whereby Congress could directly appoint FEC commissioners.

By contrast, the provisions that were upheld were those that:

1) Limited contributions to candidates;
2) Required the disclosure and reporting of provisions (although the Court narrowed their applicability); and
3) Created a system for voluntary government funding of campaigns and limited spending by candidates who used this funding.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

Burger argued that the Court should have struck down contribution limits, the government financing system, and reporting requirements regarding small contributions to campaigns.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

White felt that all of the challenged provisions were constitutional.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)

Marshall would have preserved the provision that limited candidate contributions from personal funds.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

Rehnquist would have struck down the public funding provision as applied to minor parties.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

Blackmun felt that any contribution limits were invalid.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Case Commentary

It should be noted that this decision evaluated each clause under review separately. Those that restricted and implicitly diminished the quality of free speech while lacking a legitimate interest were struck down, but those that had legitimate interests were upheld even though they also arguably restricted free speech.

Buckley proved the foundational case for analysis of campaign finance provisions. It created concerns regarding political equality by allowing governments to provide campaign funding without requiring candidates to accept that funding and the associated limits on expenditures. Public financing systems by state or federal governments cannot be used to level the playing field between candidates with varying access to funds, which can have an impact on the democratic process.

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