WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) on Tuesday agreed to review a campaign finance law in Vermont, where reformers are trying to limit donations and spending in state political races.
The Vermont case has been watched closely by campaign finance reform advocates around the country, and by those who argue that limiting political contributions or expenditures would violate the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee.
The high court does not begin its term until next week, but justices released a list Tuesday of about a dozen cases that they will review beginning next year.
In addition to the Vermont case, the court said it would hear an appeal from a Wisconsin anti-abortion group over political advertising restrictions in a 2002 campaign finance law. The high court upheld the law in 2003, but Wisconsin Right to Life brought a new challenge claiming that restrictions violated its free-speech rights.
The court's vote in the last campaign finance case was 5-4. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's departure could leave the court split 4-4 on that issue.
In 1976, the Supreme Court came down squarely on the free-speech side of the argument when it decided Buckley vs. Valeo (search), which is the law of the land on efforts to limit campaign spending. That decision struck down campaign spending limits imposed by Congress.
The Vermont Republican State Committee, Vermont Right-to-Life and other groups asked the Supreme Court in May to overturn a ruling from a federal appeals court that largely upheld the 1998 Vermont campaign finance law.
It limits individual contributions to a candidate to $200 or $400 in a two-year period, depending on the office being sought, says no one running for governor can spend more than $300,000 and sets smaller spending caps for lower-tier candidates.
Vermont's law has been tied up in court and never has gone fully into effect. Gov. James Douglas (search) spent nearly $682,000 to get re-elected last year, and other candidates spent well over the law's caps.
The Vermont law also limits political parties' contributions to candidates to $2,000 per election cycle. With the law tied up in the courts, Douglas and Democrat Peter Clavelle got six-figure contributions from their national parties last year.
Races for the U.S. House and Senate would not be affected, since they are governed by federal, rather than state, campaign finance laws.
Where core First Amendment principles are at stake, courts must bring a healthy skepticism to claims that candidates and non-candidates spend too much time and money on the political process, justices were told in court papers by lawyers for the Vermont Right to Life Committee, the Vermont Republican State Committee and others.
"By setting its limits so low and applying them so broadly, Vermont makes it difficult for many candidates to raise necessary finances," the groups said in asking the Supreme Court to take the case.
Supporters of limits on contributions and expenditures also asked the court to take the case, saying that justices must resolve once and for all whether spending limits are permissible.
"This never-ending desire for campaign money has forced candidates to become beholden to large groups of contributors and special interests that control access to such funds," said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.
The cases are Randall v. Sorrell, 04-1528, and Vermont Republican State Committee v. Sorrell, 04-1530.