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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1999

    Missouri leads in landmark case in high court
    By Jason Grotto

    The U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the fray surrounding state campaign-finance issues last month by agreeing to review a lower-court decision that found Missouri's limits on individual campaign contributions unconstitutional.

    The case is the first involving campaign contributions to come before the Supreme Court in 23 years, opening the door for a possible revisiting of the 1976 landmark decision Buckley v. Valeo. Buckley upheld limits similar to those in Missouri on individual contributions to federal election campaigns. (However, the court did not place a cap on candidate expenditures because it equated election spending with First Amendment rights to free speech.)

    "The first candidate contribution case that the court has looked at since Buckley, with limits above the amount specified in Buckley, certainly puts at risk both the words of the federal law [limiting individual campaign contributions to $1,000] and the underpinnings of the law. This case will provide a seminal moment, in which campaign finance reform can move forward," said Missourišs Attorney General Jeremiah W. Nixon, who will argue the case before the Supreme Court.

    Missouri filed its appeal to the high court less than two weeks after the lower courtšs decision, hoping to get the case on the docket before the end of the current Supreme Court session, which ends in June. However, the court opted to hear the case during its fall term beginning in October. The Missouri Attorney Generalšs office is expecting the court to issue a ruling before the 2000 election cycle. Until then, Missouri has no contribution limits in effect.

    In the meantime, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling has left a slew of similar state contribution laws across the country in constitutional purgatory. The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio reported that Ohio State Solicitor Edward B. Foley will be preparing a "friend of the court" brief that other states will be asked to sign. In it he will argue that the constitutionality of contribution limits should be left for the state to determine, not the courts.

    A 1994 Missouri law set the ceiling for individual contributions at $1,075 for most statewide offices, $525 for state Senate candidates and $275 for state House candidates. Again, the Buckley decision determined that for federal campaigns the limit for individual contributions would be $1,000.

    The 8th Circuit cited two reasons in its Nov. 30 decision for throwing out Missourišs contribution limits:

  • First, the appeals court ruled that Missouri failed to provide "some demonstrable evidence that there were genuine problems that resulted from contributions in amounts greater than the limits in place."
  • Second, the court found the Missouri limits to be "so small that they run afoul of the Constitution by unnecessarily restricting protected First Amendment freedoms."
  • Ironically, for both reasons the 8th Circuit referred to Buckley despite the fact that the Buckley decision did uphold caps on individual contributions.

    Regarding the circuit court's requirement of "some demonstrable evidence," the court stated that Buckley "noted the perfidy that had been uncovered in federal campaign financing in 1972." Yet, in his dissent U.S. Circuit Judge John R. Gibson pointed to Buckley's "equal concern" for "the appearance of corruption," which suggests that the Buckley decision may need clarification in regards to how much proof of corruption is necessary to limit political contributions.

    Nixon said the burden of proof to show corruption, as it stands and as was required of him by the appeals court, is "impossible to meet."

    "It's different for each person," Nixon said. "It's difficult, to say the least, to find an elected government official who would come before the court and admit to being corrupted by contributions over $1,000. And if itšs not $1,000, then what is it, $1,001? $1,002?"

    In Kentucky, however, it's clear that the proof of corruption did effect political contribution limits. A 1997 ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $1,000 limit for statewide elections. The first line of the decision read: "Numerous Kentucky public officials have been convicted of abusing their political offices for personal gain over the past 25 years."

    The second facet of the 8th Circuit's ruling found the contribution limits in the Missouri law too strict. After adjusting the Missouri limits for inflation, the 8th Circuit found the limits, which came in at $75 above the federal limit, to be "a heavy-handed restriction on protected speech." This ruling seems to challenge the very core of Buckley v. Valeo: The Buckley case said nothing about adjusting federal limits to inflation.

    "If Buckley's holding must wax and wane with inflation, then the very statute that Buckley upheld would now be unconstitutional," Judge Gibson wrote in his dissent. "Whatever may be the pernicious effects of inflation, I am certain that the First Amendmentšs dictates do not depend on the Consumer Price Index."

    Jason Grotto can be reached by e-mail at jason@nicar.org.