June 28, 2006

Governor Carcieri and the Cutting Edge of Constitutional Jurisprudence

Carroll Andrew Morse

Well we’re on the subject of campaign finance reform (see the comments in the post below), it should be noted that Governor Donald Carcieri’s most recent veto has placed him on the right side of the U.S Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment. Scott Mayerowitz describes the campaign finance bill vetoed by Governor Carcieri in today's Projo

Governor Carcieri vetoed legislation that would have changed campaign-finance laws -- limiting each political party to donating $25,000 to a "group" of candidates during a calendar year.

Current law allows parties to give up to $25,000 to each candidate. This bill would have capped party contributions to candidates at $1,000.

According to the Supreme Court’s decision in Randall v. Sorrell (2006), issued just this Monday, Governor Carcieri vetoed a bill that was clearly unconstitutional.

In Randall (“the Vermont Campaign Finance Law Case”), the court overturned the Vermont legislature’s attempt to impose very strict limits on state election campaign donations and expenditures. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled 1) that “well-established precedent makes clear that the expenditure limits violate the First Amendment” and 2) that the “low maximum levels and other restrictions” embodied in the Vermont law “impose burdens upon First Amendment interests that…are disproportionately severe”.

One of the “other restrictions” considered by the Court involved contributions made by political parties. The court held specifically that it is unconstitutional to place contribution limits on parties that are no greater than the limits on individuals…

Act 64’s insistence that political parties abide by exactly the same low contribution limits that apply to other contributors threatens harm to a particularly important political right, the right to associate in a political party….

We recognize that we have previously upheld limits on contributions from political parties to candidates, in particular the federal limits on coordinated party spending….But the contribution limits at issue in Colorado II were far less problematic, for they were significantly higher than Act 64’s limits….they were much higher than the federal limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, thereby reflecting an effort by Congress to balance (1) the need to allow individuals to participate in the political process by contributing to political parties that help elect candidates with (2) the need to prevent the use of political parties “to circumvent contribution limits that apply to individuals.”….Act 64, by placing identical limits upon contributions to candidates, whether made by an individual or by a political party, gives to the former consideration no weight at all.

We consequently agree with the District Court that the Act’s contribution limits “would reduce the voice of political parties” in Vermont to a “whisper.”….And we count the special party-related harms that Act 64 threatens as a further factor weighing against the constitutional validity of the contribution limits.

Governor Carcieri’s veto illustrates the strength of the separation of powers system; when one branch of government -- in this case the Rhode Island legislature -- tries to impose limits on a guaranteed right, there exist other co-equal branches of government who can stop it from happening.