Randall v. Sorrell
548 U.S. 230 (2006)

Annotate this Case



RANDALL et al. v. SORRELL et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

No. 04–1528. Argued February 28, 2006—Decided June 26, 2006

Vermont’s Act 64 stringently limits both the amounts that candidates for state office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties may contribute to those campaigns. Soon after Act 64 became law, the petitioners—individuals who have run for state office, citizens who vote in state elections and contribute to campaigns, and political parties and committees participating in state politics—brought this suit against the respondents, state officials charged with enforcing the Act. The District Court held that Act 64’s expenditure limits violate the First Amendment, see Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1, and that the Act’s limits on political parties’ contributions to candidates were unconstitutional, but found the other contribution limits constitutional. The Second Circuit held that all of the Act’s contribution limits are constitutional, ruled that the expenditure limits may be constitutional because they are supported by compelling interests in preventing corruption or its appearance and in limiting the time state officials must spend raising campaign funds, and remanded for the District Court to determine whether the expenditure limits were narrowly tailored to those interests.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the cases are remanded.

382 F. 3d 91, reversed and remanded.

   Justice Breyer, joined by The Chief Justice and Justice Alito, concluded in Parts I, II–B–3, III, and IV that both of Act 64’s sets of limitations are inconsistent with the First Amendment. Pp. 6–8, 10–29.

   1. The expenditure limits violate the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees under Buckley. Pp. 6–8, 10–11.

      (a) In Buckley, the Court held, inter alia, that the Government’s asserted interest in preventing “corruption and the appearance of corruption,” 424 U. S., at 25, provided sufficient justification for the contribution limitations imposed on campaigns for federal office by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, id., at 23–38, but that FECA’s expenditure limitations violated the First Amendment, id., at 39–59. The Court explained that the difference between the two kinds of limitations is that expenditure limits “impose significantly more severe restrictions on protected freedoms of political expression and association than” do contribution limits. Id., at 23. Contribution limits, though a “marginal restriction,” nevertheless leave the contributor “fre[e] to discuss candidates and issues.” Id., at 20–21. Expenditure limits, by contrast, impose “[a] restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication,” id., at 19, and thereby necessarily “reduc[e] the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached,” ibid. For over 30 years, in considering the constitutionality of a host of campaign finance statutes, this Court has adhered to Buckley’s constraints, including those on expenditure limits. See, e.g., McConnell v. Federal Election Comm’n, 540 U. S. 93, 134. Pp. 6–8.

      (b) The respondents argue unpersuasively that Buckley should be distinguished from the present cases on a ground they say Buckley did not consider: that expenditure limits help to protect candidates from spending too much time raising money rather than devoting that time to campaigning among ordinary voters. There is no significant basis for that distinction. Act 64’s expenditure limits are not substantially different from those at issue in Buckley. Nor is Vermont’s primary justification for imposing its expenditure limits significantly different from Congress’ rationale for the Buckley limits: preventing corruption and its appearance. The respondents say unpersuasively that, had the Buckley Court considered the time protection rationale for expenditure limits, the Court would have upheld those limits in the FECA. The Buckley Court, however, was aware of the connection between expenditure limits and a reduction in fundraising time. And, in any event, the connection seems perfectly obvious. Under these circumstances, the respondents’ argument amounts to no more than an invitation so to limit Buckley’s holding as effectively to overrule it. That invitation is declined. Pp. 10–11.

   2. Act 64’s contribution limits violate the First Amendment because those limits, in their specific details, burden protected interests in a manner disproportionate to the public purposes they were enacted to advance. Pp. 11–29.

      (a) In upholding the $1,000 contribution limit before it, the Buckley Court recognized, inter alia, that such limits, unlike expenditure limits, “involv[e] little direct restraint on” the contributor’s speech, 424 U. S., at 21, and are permissible as long as the government demonstrates that they are “closely drawn” to match a “sufficiently important interest,” id., at 25. It found that the interest there advanced, “prevent[ing] corruption” and its “appearance,” was “sufficiently important” to justify the contribution limits, id., at 25–26, and that those limits were “closely drawn.” Although recognizing that, in determining whether a particular contribution limit was “closely drawn,” the amount, or level, of that limit could make a difference, see id., at 21, the Court added that such “distinctions in degree become significant only when they … amount to differences in kind,” id., at 30. Pointing out that it had “no scalpel to probe, whether, say, a $2,000 ceiling might not serve as well as $1,000,” ibid., the Court found “no indication” that FECA’s contribution limitations would have “any dramatic adverse effect on the funding of campaigns,” id., at 21. Since Buckley, the Court has consistently upheld contribution limits in other statutes, but has recognized that such limits might sometimes work more harm to protected First Amendment interests than their anticorruption objectives could justify, see, e.g., Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U. S. 377, 395–397. Pp. 12–13.

      (b) Although the Court has “no scalpel to probe,” 424 U. S., at 30, with exactitude whether particular contribution limits are too low and normally defers to the legislature in that regard, it must nevertheless recognize the existence of some lower bound, as Buckley acknowledges. While the interests served by contribution limits, preventing corruption and its appearance, “directly implicate the integrity of our electoral process,” McConnell, supra, at 136, that does not simply mean the lower the limit, the better. Contribution limits that are too low also can harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability. Where there is strong indication in a particular case, i.e., danger signs, that such risks exist (both present in kind and likely serious in degree), courts, including appellate courts, must review the record independently and carefully with an eye toward assessing the statute’s “tailoring,” i.e., toward assessing the restrictions’ proportionality. See Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U. S. 485, 499. Danger signs that Act 64’s contribution limits may fall outside tolerable First Amendment limits are present here. They are substantially lower than both the limits the Court has previously upheld and the comparable limits in force in other States. Consequently, the record must be examined to determine whether Act 64’s contribution limits are “closely drawn” to match the State’s interests. Pp. 13–19.

      (c) The record demonstrates that, from a constitutional perspective, Act 64’s contribution limits are too restrictive. Five sets of factors, taken together, lead to the conclusion that those limits are not narrowly tailored. First, the record suggests, though it does not conclusively prove, that Act 64’s contribution limits will significantly restrict the amount of funding available for challengers to run competitive campaigns. Second, Act 64’s insistence that a political party and all of its affiliates together abide by exactly the same low $200 to $400 contribution limits that apply to individual contributors threatens harm to a particularly important political right, the right to associate in a political party. See, e.g., California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U. S. 567, 574. Although the Court upheld federal limits on political parties’ contributions to candidates in Federal Election Comm’n v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Comm., 533 U. S. 431, the limits there at issue were far less problematic, for they were significantly higher than Act 64’s limits, see, e.g., id., at 438–439, and n. 3, and they were much higher than the federal limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, see id., at 453. Third, Act 64’s treatment of volunteer services aggravates the problem. Although the Act excludes uncompensated volunteer services from its “contribution” definition, it does not exclude the expenses volunteers incur, e.g., travel expenses, in the course of campaign activities. The combination of very low contribution limits and the absence of an exception excluding volunteer expenses may well impede a campaign’s ability effectively to use volunteers, thereby making it more difficult for individuals to associate in this way. Cf. Buckley, supra, at 22. Fourth, unlike the contribution limits upheld in Shrink, Act 64’s limits are not adjusted for inflation, but decline in real value each year. A failure to index limits means that limits already suspiciously low will almost inevitably become too low over time. Fifth, nowhere in the record is there any special justification for Act 64’s low and restrictive contribution limits. Rather, the basic justifications the State has advanced in support of such limits are those present in Buckley. Indeed, other things being equal, one might reasonably believe that a contribution of, say, $250 (or $450) to a candidate’s campaign was less likely to prove a corruptive force than the far larger contributions at issue in the other campaign finance cases the Court has considered. Pp. 19–28.

      (d) It is not possible to sever some of the Act’s contribution limit provisions from others that might remain fully operative. Doing so would require the Court to write words into the statute (inflation indexing), to leave gaping loopholes (no limits on party contributions), or to foresee which of many different possible ways the Vermont Legislature might respond to the constitutional objections to Act 64. In these circumstances, the legislature likely would not have intended the Court to set aside the statute’s contribution limits. The legislature is free to rewrite those provisions to address the constitutional difficulties here identified. Pp. 28–29.

   Justice Breyer, joined by The Chief Justice in Parts II–B–1 and II–B–2, rejected the respondents’ argument that Buckley should, in effect, be overruled because subsequent experience has shown that contribution limits alone cannot effectively deter corruption or its appearance. Stare decisis, the basic legal principle commanding judicial respect for a court’s earlier decisions and their rules of law, prevents the overruling of Buckley. Adherence to precedent is the norm; departure from it is exceptional, requiring “special justification,” Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U. S. 203, 212, especially where, as here, the principle at issue has become settled through iteration and reiteration over a long period. There is no special justification here. Subsequent case law has not made Buckley a legal anomaly or otherwise undermined its basic legal principles. Cf. Dickerson v. United States, 530 U. S. 428, 443. Nor is there any demonstration that circumstances have changed so radically as to undermine Buckley’s critical factual assumptions. The respondents have not shown, for example, any dramatic increase in corruption or its appearance in Vermont; nor have they shown that expenditure limits are the only way to attack that problem. Cf. McConnell, supra. Finally, overruling Buckley now would dramatically undermine the considerable reliance that Congress and state legislatures have placed upon it in drafting campaign finance laws. And this Court has followed Buckley, upholding and applying its reasoning in later cases. Pp. 8–10.

   Justice Alito agreed that Act 64’s expenditure and contribution limits violate the First Amendment, but concluded that respondents’ backup argument asking this Court to revisit Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1, need not be reached because they have failed to address considerations of stare decisis. Pp. 1–2.

   Justice Kennedy agreed that Vermont’s limitations on campaign expenditures and contributions violate the First Amendment, but concluded that, given his skepticism regarding this Court’s campaign finance jurisprudence, see, e.g., McConnell v. Federal Election Comm’n, 540 U. S. 93, 286–287, 313, it is appropriate for him to concur only in the judgment. Pp. 1–3.

   Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, agreed that Vermont’s Act 64 is unconstitutional, but disagreed with the plurality’s rationale for striking down that statute. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1, provides insufficient protection to political speech, the core of the First Amendment, is therefore illegitimate and not protected by stare decisis, and should be overruled and replaced with a standard faithful to the Amendment. This Court erred in Buckley when it distinguished between contribution and expenditure limits, finding the former to be a less severe infringement on First Amendment rights. See, e.g., Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U. S. 377, 410–418. Both the contribution and expenditure restrictions of Act 64 should be subjected to strict scrutiny, which they would fail. See, e.g., Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Comm. v. Federal Election Comm’n, 518 U. S. 604, 640–641. Pp. 1–10.

   Breyer, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., joined, and in which Alito, J., joined as to all but Parts II–B–1 and II–B–2. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Scalia, J., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined, and in which Stevens, J., joined as to Parts II and III.

 Together with No. 04–1530, Vermont Republican State Committee et al. v. Sorrell et al., and No. 04–1697, Sorrell et al. v. Randall et al., also on certiorari to the same court.

Primary Holding
A state may not set expenditure limits for political candidates under the First Amendment. Also, a state may not set contribution limits as low as $200-400 per candidate for individuals, political groups, and political parties.
A campaign finance law in Vermont limited how much political candidates could spend during an election cycle and how much individuals, political groups, and parties could spend on the candidate's behalf. The limits for contributions by non-candidates were set at $200-400 per candidate.



  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • John G. Roberts, Jr.

Spending money to influence elections is protected speech under the First Amendment, as established by Buckley v. Valeo (1976). This case presents no meaningful differences from the situation in Buckley. While states may impose some restrictions on the scale of political contributions by non-candidates, these limits are so low that they interfere with the ability of candidates to campaign effectively. They impose a greater burden than is proportionate to their objectives.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia

While the majority was correct in ruling that this situation is similar to Buckley, that precedent should be overruled because it does not provide enough protection for political speech.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Buckley diverged from long-standing jurisprudence in the area of expenditure limits and should be overruled in that regard. Candidates should not be limited in terms of fund-raising efforts.


  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

While the non-candidate contribution limits are permissible, the candidate expenditure limits should be reviewed under a strict scrutiny standard by the lower courts. It is unclear whether they are the least restrictive means that the state could have used.


  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (Author)


  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)

Case Commentary

This case expands on the earlier decision of Buckley v. Valeo, but it still left open the questions of whether mandatory limits ever will be upheld. Existing regulations on voluntary expenditures also survived this decision, which dealt with one specific provision.

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