Legal Principle at Issue
Whether the Party Expenditure Provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 violates a political party's First Amendment rights by limiting the amount of money a party may spend in coordination with its congressional candidates.
Reversed. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.
In 1986, the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee paid for several radio ads attacking the voting record of Tim Wirth, the potential Democratic senatorial candidate. The ads ran before the Republican nominee for senator had been selected. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) filed an action alleging that the party had violated the Party Expenditure Provision (PEP) of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 by exceeding spending limits for political parties. The Colorado Republican Party sued in federal court, claiming that the provision violated the First Amendment. The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission, 518 U.S. 604 (1996)("Colorado I") that the provision could not be applied to independent expenditures by political parties.
In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a plurality decision that the PEP was unconstitutional as applied to the particular expenditure at issue. The Court characterized the radio ads as "independent expenditures" (not subject to the PEP) as opposed to "coordinated expenditures" (subject to the PEP). The majority determined the Wirth ads were "independent expenditures" because the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party had approved the ad and had not consulted with the respective Republican candidates.
The Colorado I court then remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings with regard to the broader issue of whether the PEP of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 violates a political party's First Amendment rights by limiting the amount of money a party may spend in "coordination" with its congressional candidates. Four justices in Colorado I (Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy and Rehnquist) ruled that they would have struck down the PEP with regards to both independent and coordinated expenditures. In 1999, the U.S. District Court granted summary judgment to the Colorado Republican Party, ruling that the limits on political parties' coordinated expenditures violated the First Amendment. In May of 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on Oct. 10, 2000.
Importance of Case
The First Amendment provides a degree of protection to both spending for political ends and contributing to political candidates. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976). There is a constitutionally significant difference between contribution limits and spending limits under Buckley, because the Court determined that the speech interests in campaign contributions are more marginal than the speech interests in spending limits. The government has a substantial interest in reducing corruption and the appearance of corruption in public elections.
The Court reasoned that Buckley and its progeny require greater judicial deference to limits on contributions than expenditures. Congress drew a functional line between contributions and expenditures when it sought to limit a political parties' "coordinated expenditures." The Court determined that "there is little evidence to suggest that coordinated party spending limits adopted by Congress have frustrated the ability of political parties to exercise their First Amendment rights to support their candidates." The limit on political parties' coordinated spending is necessary to prevent the circumvention of other contribution limits in campaign finance laws.