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High court rejects Vermont campaign finance law

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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The Supreme Court struck down Vermont's campaign finance law but did not reach a consensus opinion.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday struck down Vermont's strict limits on state campaign spending limits, finding the laws unfairly violate the free speech rights of candidates to raise money and publicize their views.

The 6-3 ruling deeply divided the high court, with justices issuing six separate opinions, and failing to reach an over-arching consensus on the issue. A similar Supreme Court ruling 30 years ago threw out spending limits for federal candidates.

The justices essentially found Vermont's laws -- considered the strictest in the nation -- went too far.

Writing for a shaky majority, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded the laws, "disproportionately burdens numerous First Amendment interests, and consequently, violates the First Amendment."

Those limits, said Breyer, "taken together with low average Vermont campaign expenditures and the typically higher costs that a challenger must bear to overcome the name-recognition advantage enjoyed by an incumbent, raise a reasonable inference that the contribution limits are so low that they may poise a significant obstacle to candidates in competitive elections."

Vermont limits individual contributions to a legislative candidate to $200 (or $400 in a two-year period), and $400 for governor or lieutenant governor.

Candidate spending for governor is limited to $300,000, with lesser amounts for lower-tier candidates. It also limits political party contributions to candidates. The law has never gone into effect and the current governor, James Douglas, a Republican, spent more than twice the limit to get re-elected last year.

The campaign reform bill in Vermont was promoted by then Gov. Howard Dean, now head of the Democratic National Committee, which is trying to win back control of Congress and many statehouses for his party.

In dissent, Justice David Souter criticized the majority of "second-guessing legislative judgments" about curbing potential abuses from "the money chase" many candidates are forced to undertake.

"We are left with an unresolved question of narrow tailoring and with consequent doubt about the justifiability of the spending limits as necessary and appropriate correctives," he wrote.

The main case in a series of consolidated appeals is Randall v. Sorrell (04-1528)

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