Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)

To appreciate the significance of Buckley v. Valeo, it is important to take a step back and consider the role of money in politics since the founding of the nation, but especially with the rise of the modern campaign in the twentieth century. To address the perceived abuses of money in the political system, Congress passed a series of acts throughout the 1900s, including the Tillman Act of 1907 (banning corporate contributions to presidential campaigns), the Hatch Act of 1939 (prohibiting political contributions of more than $5,000 to federal candidates or campaign committees, among other things), and the most significant of all, the Federal Election and Campaign Act (FECA). This act, passed by Congress in 1971 and amended in 1974—in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the general decline in public trust of elected officials— called for the disclosure of the sources of campaign contributions and campaign expenditures, the public funding of presidential primaries and general elections, limits on campaign expenditures for those accepting public funding, limits on expenditures from individuals’ personal funds, $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures, establishment of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and a range of contribution limits for various individuals and organizations.

Convinced that the amended act violated core First Amendment rights, a collection of individuals and groups from across the political spectrum led by Senator James L. Buckley of New York filed suit against Francis Valeo, secretary of the Senate and ex-officio member of the newly formed FEC in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This court certified the constitutional questions in the case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld virtually all of the substantive provisions of the FECA. Senator Buckley, et al., appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced its decision on January 30, 1976.

The Buckley decision is one of the longest, most complicated, and most controversial decisions that the Court has ever produced. It is a per curiam opinion of the eight justices sitting at the time (Justice John Paul Stevens took no part). In essence, the Court found constitutional the limitations on contributions to candidates for federal office, the disclosure and recordkeeping provisions, and the public financing of presidential elections. The Court found unconstitutional the limitations on expenditures by candidates and their committees (except for presidential candidates accepting public funds), the $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures, the limitation on expenditures drawn from candidates’ personal funds, and the method of appointment for FEC members.

The opinion, however, was quite fractured, with all the justices joining only in the ‘‘case or controversy’’ section of the decision. Three justices (William Brennan, Potter Stewart, and Lewis Powell) joined all parts of the decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall joined all except for the finding that limitations on expenditures by candidates from personal or family resources were unconstitutional, and Justice Harry Blackmun joined all parts except for the finding that contribution limits were constitutional. Then- Associate Justice William Rehnquist joined all parts except for the holding that public financing was constitutional with respect to the financing of nominating conventions, while Chief Justice Warren Burger joined only the sections explaining that the interest in preventing corruption was insufficient to justify expenditure limits and the section pertaining to the scope of the FEC’s authority, and Justice Byron White joined only in the holding that public financing was constitutional.

While the disclosure and public funding provisions are of critical importance to the operations of modern campaigns, it was the Court’s qualitative distinction drawn between campaign expenditures and campaign contributions that has had the greatest lasting significance. In its reasoning, the per curiam opinion held that expenditure limits violated the First Amendment, while the state’s legitimate interest in preventing corruption and ‘‘the appearance of corruption’’ justified the limits on contributions to candidates for federal office to $1,000 for individual and groups, $5,000 for political committees, and $25,000 in total contributions during any calendar year. Further, the governmental interest in the disclosure of contributors, and amounts of $100 or more, outweighed the potential damage done to some minor parties and independent candidates. Finally, the system of public financing for presidential candidates was found to be constitutional, while the method of appointing members of the FEC was found unconstitutional.

In light of the recent abuses of public authority (that is, Watergate), the Court in this case was more prepared to accept a defense of the FECA that relied on public perceptions—whether accurate or not. As the per curiam opinion explained, it was not necessary to look beyond the primary purpose of the act—limiting ‘‘the actuality and appearance of corruption resulting from large individual financial contributions’’— to find a constitutional justification for the contribution limits. ‘‘Under a system of private financing of elections,’’ the opinion continued,

[a] candidate lacking immense personal or family wealth must depend on financial contributions from others to provide the resources necessary to conduct a successful campaign . . . . To the extent that large contributions are given to secure political quid pro quo’s from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined. Of almost equal concern as the danger of actual quid pro quo arrangements is the impact of the appearance of corruption stemming from public awareness of the opportunities for abuse inherent in a regime of large individual financial contributions . . . [emphasis added].

Laws criminalizing bribery were insufficient to address these more systemic problems, because they addressed only the ‘‘most blatant and specific attempts of those with money to influence governmental action.’’

The Buckley decision dramatically altered American politics and shaped the nature of the modern campaign. Like water pressing against a dam, as the saying goes, money searches for a way into the political sphere and the numerous progeny since Buckley (dealing with limits on political action committee [PAC] spending, ‘‘hard’’ versus ‘‘soft’’ money restrictions, coordination versus correlation in a party’s relationship to its candidate, etc.) indicate that the Court will continue to play a role in the superintending of campaign finance as long as the central provisions of this paradigm case are upheld.

BRIAN K. PINAIRE

References and Further Reading

  • Alexander, Herbert, and Brian Haggerty. The Federal Election Campaign Act: After a Decade of Political Reform. Los Angeles: Citizens’ Research Foundation, 1981. 
  • Polsby, Daniel. ‘‘Buckley v. Valeo: The Special Nature of Political Speech.’’ In The Supreme Court Review, edited by Philip Kurland, 1–43. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. 
  • Rosenkranz, E. Joshua, ed. If Buckley Fell: A First Amendment Blueprint for Regulating Money in Politics. New York: The Century Foundation, 1999. 
  • Smith, Bradley. Unfree Speech. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, 2 U.S.C. 441b(a); later amended in 1974, 1976, and 1979 
  • Hatch Act of 1939, 18 U.S.C. §610 
  • Tillman Act, ch. 420, 34 Stat. 864 

See also Burger Court; Campaign Finance Reform, No. 1021; Freedom of Speech: Modern Period (1917– Present); Politics and Money

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