Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission, 518 U.S. 604 (1996)

2012-06-06 08:35:58

Should political parties on their own be able to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of their candidates? The Supreme Court stated yes, upholding on First Amendment free speech grounds the right of political parties to make independent expenditures.

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of limits on political contributions to candidates and political parties, even though money spent implicated free speech–like issues. In Buckley the Court also stated that money spent by third-party groups independently of campaigns was protected by the First Amendment and could not be limited, but that money spent in coordination with a candidate would be counted against the latter’s contribution limits. However, unresolved was whether money spent independently by political parties on behalf of candidates could be limited? This was the subject of Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee.

In this case the Colorado Republican Party spent money to attack Tim Wirth, the likely Democratic Party U.S. Senate candidate in 1986. At the time of the ads, the Republicans did not have a candidate. The issue in the case was whether the ads were coordinated and subject to limits, or an independent expenditure, free from limits.

In a divided seven to two opinion, Justice Breyer wrote the plurality opinion ruling that these contributions were independent expenditures. The First Amendment protects the right of political parties to make them without limit on behalf of candidates, so long as spending is not coordinated with candidates. The Court reached this conclusion by simply drawing on its arguments in Buckley that independent expenditures are protected by the First Amendment, whether made by political parties or other entities.


References and Further Reading

  • Hasen, Richard L. The Supreme Court and Election Law. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Cases and Statutes Cited Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)

See also First Amendment and PACs; Campaign Finance Reform