Summary of Buckley v. Valeo
Citation: 424 U.S. 1
Relevant Facts: In 1974, Congress passed a number of amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act over the veto of President Gerald Ford. The various provisions created contribution and spending limits for candidates in federal elections, seeking to limit individual contributions, campaign expenditures, and independent expenditures. The act also established a new procedure for appointing FEC Commissioners. Plaintiffs, current and former candidates for federal elective office, sought declaratory and injunctive relief arguing that the regulatory scheme unconstitutionally restricted free speech rights and violated due process.
Issues: Do limits on contributions to candidates unconstitutionally restrict free speech in violation of the 1st Amendment? Do limitations on independent expenditures, and requirements for disclosure, unconstitutionally restrict protected speech? Does the scheme established for appointing FEC Commissioners comport with Constitutional requirements for Separation of Powers?
Holding: Limitations on contributions to candidates are constitutional as a means to restrict quid pro quo exchanges and protect the integrity of the election process. Limitations on independent expenditures as codified exceed Congressional authority and unconstitutionally restrict speech that is neither directed nor controlled by candidates for office. The scheme adopted for appointing FEC commissioners unconstitutionally infringed on separation of powers by abdicating proper procedures under the Appointments Clause and allowing commissioners to wield significant power absent appointment by an “Officer of the United States."
Reasoning: The Court first dealt with the threshold issue of standing, given the straightforward constitutional challenge and necessity of a case or controversy requiring resolution. The Court determined that at least some plaintiffs had a personal stake in the questions presented and were entitled to specific relief. Next, the Court determined that general contribution restrictions, and required disclosure, are acceptable under the 1st Amendment given the valid legislative interests in protecting the integrity of elections. The restrictions in question – limiting donations and requiring disclosure – necessarily limited expression, but did not go so far as to impinge Constitutional protections. Rather, the Court determined, the Act primarily regulated actions and not speech, and while generally capable of reducing the total volume of political speech, served to prohibit conduct rather than protected speech.
The Court found fault with the overall spending limitations on candidates, restrictions on candidate expenditures from personal funds, and the method for appointing FEC Commissioners. First, the Court determined, restrictions on the total volume of campaign contributions served to produce a ceiling on available political speech, in violation of the 1st Amendment. The Court also determined that while regulating elections was a valid Congressional exercise of power, and independent limits are acceptable, a limit on the total of expenditures could only serve to provide an unconstitutional limit on the acceptable amount of total speech. Next, the Court determined that personal expenditures could not be regulated on the same basis as contribution limits because the goal of preventing corruption was inapplicable in this context, and limits could only serve to directly reduce the available volume of speech and opportunities to communicate. Finally, the Court struck down the established procedure for appointing FEC Commissioners. Where, as here, the processes involved legislative selection, the FEC would either be limited to exercising powers co-extensive with those of Congressional Committees or require a procedure faithful to the Appointments Clause requiring appointment by an “Officer of the United States."
Dissent: Chief Justice Burger dissented in part and concurred in part, arguing that disclosure requirements for small contributions suffered from the same defects as overall spending limits, and urging the Court to refuse the opportunity to dissect the overall Congressional scheme for regulatory control of elections and instead set Constitutional limits on their methodology for regulation. Justice White dissented in part and concurred in part, preferring to defer to Congressional judgment in regulating expenditures and uphold all those portions of the Act, and going to great lengths to address the Courts concerns regarding Separation of Powers (arguing the appointment scheme should stand). Justice Marshall dissented in part, arguing that the limits on personal expenditures should be upheld in light of legitimate concerns about financial influence in politics, and the real possibility of restricting elective office to the wealthy. Justice Blackmun dissented in part, pointing out that the distinction between limits on contributions and expenditures lacked a principled basis. Justice Rehnquist also dissented in part, finding fault with the scheme for public financing of elections and arguing that the Act unconstitutionally distinguished between major and minor party candidates in a way that further entrenched the two-party system.
Conclusion: Congress may regulate the amount of individual contributions to candidates for federal office, but may not establish overall spending limits or regulate independent expenditures in the same way (provided they are separate from a candidate’s campaign apparatus). Congress must adhere to the Appointments Clause when establishing a scheme for appointing FEC Commissioners, or in choosing to forgo those requirements, restrict the available authority of commissioners to acts within the appointment authority of the legislature alone. While later cases clarified the role of Congress in regulating elections, Buckley is still the starting point for inquiries into Constitutional limits on campaign finance restrictions.