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Court Rules Vermont's Campaign Finance Laws Are Constitutional

CONTACT: Megan Shafritz, Assistant Attorney General, (802) 828-5527

June 22, 2012

A Vermont federal court issued a decision yesterday in favor of the State dismissing a case brought by the Vermont Right to Life Committee, Inc. (“VRLC”) and rejecting all aspects of the constitutional attack. Attorney General William Sorrell applauded the decision, saying, “The Court’s ruling provides resounding confirmation of the validity of Vermont’s campaign finance disclosure laws and the State’s ability to address Vermonter’s concerns about the influence of money in politics.”

VRLC filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont challenging Vermont’s campaign finance registration and reporting provisions for political committees (“PACs”), as well as other identification and disclosure provisions. VRLC argued that these provisions are vague, overbroad, and violate the First Amendment. In addition, VRLC-Fund for Independent Expenditures (“FIPE”), a subcommittee created by VRLC, asserted that it could not be subject to Vermont’s $2,000 limit on contributions to PACs because it claimed it did not give money directly to candidates, but rather it only made “independent expenditures.”

In a thorough and comprehensive decision, Judge Sessions rejected each and every one of VRLC’s arguments attacking Vermont’s PAC reporting and disclosure laws as unconstitutional. The Court unequivocally held that these requirements are clear and valid. In addition, the Court ruled that the laws apply to groups that receive and spend more than $500 on election ads, regardless of whether or not such political advertising or other campaign work is the group’s “major purpose.” The Court found that the “major purpose test” urged by VRLC had “no relevance” and its adoption would lead to “peculiar results.”

The Court also held that FIPE must abide by the $2000 contribution limit for PACs. It is not entitled to an exemption on the theory that it makes only independent expenditures. Noting that in this case, “the facts are vital,” the Court examined the detailed records and documents assembled by the State and found that FIPE was intimately intertwined with VRLC-PC, VRLC’s PAC that provides direct support to candidates. The Court concluded that the “nearly complete organizational identity,” “fluidity of funds,” and “structural melding” between FIPE and VRLC-PC erased any suggestion of independence. FIPE’s bid to avoid contribution limits must be rejected, the Court reasoned. “Otherwise, funds raised in unlimited quantities by FIPE” could be funneled to VRLC-PC for use in candidate contributions, and VRLC-PC “would be able to circumvent limits on contributions to it to support its activities.”

“We are pleased that Judge Sessions recognized the importance of the factual record in this case, which thoroughly contradicted FIPE’s claims as to the nature of its political activities and involvement,” Attorney General Sorrell stated.

  Website consulting provided by The National Association of Attorneys General.