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Federal Appeals Court Upholds Vermont's Campaign Finance Law

CONTACT: Eve Jacobs-Carnahan, Assistant Attorney General, (802) 828-0370

July 2, 2014

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision today in favor of the State of Vermont, rejecting all elements of Vermont Right to Life Committee’s (“VRLC”) attack on the State’s campaign finance laws. The appellate court affirmed the federal district court’s decision issued by Judge William Sessions in June 2012. Attorney General William Sorrell commended the court’s decision, saying, “The Second Circuit’s ruling confirms the constitutional validity of Vermont’s campaign finance laws. It upholds an important part of Vermont’s regulatory framework addressing money in elections.”

The appellate court upheld the constitutionality of Vermont’s registration and reporting provisions for political committees and the requirement that election-related advertising identify its sponsors. The court also confirmed that contribution limits apply to VRLC-Fund for Independent Expenditures (“VRLC-FIPE”), a VRLC subcommittee that is functionally indistinguishable from VRLC-PC, which makes direct contributions to candidates.

VRLC-FIPE contended that it was exempt from the contribution limits because it purported to be an independent-expenditure-only group. The court devoted a large portion of the decision to analyzing VRLC-FIPE’s operation and its claim that it was independent of VRLC-PC, a group that coordinated with and directly contributed to candidates. The court emphasized: “Some actual organizational separation between the groups must exist to assure that the expenditures are in fact uncoordinated.” The court rejected VRLC-FIPE’s argument that it was an independent-expenditure-only committee merely by virtue of having a separate bank account. Instead, the court found that the two groups were indistinguishable. This was “clear from the total overlap of staff and resources, the fluidity of funds, and the lack of any informational barrier between the entities.”

Attorney General Sorrell noted the significance of the court’s analysis and reliance on factual evidence. “It confirms our position that a group must do more than simply call itself an independent-expenditure group. It must actually behave like one.”

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