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Vermont Supreme Court Affirms Campaign Finance Law Violation Decision And Upholds Vermont Law As Constitutional

CONTACT: William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, Megan Shafritz, Assistant Attorney General, Assistant Attorney General, (802) 828-3173, (802) 828-3176

September 27, 2013

Today the Vermont Supreme Court issued a decision upholding the State’s enforcement of Vermont’s campaign finance law against Green Mountain Future (“GMF”), an advocacy organization primarily funded by the Democratic Governors Association. The Court affirmed the lower court’s findings that GMF committed campaign finance law violations during the 2010 gubernatorial race. Specifically, GMF violated the law by spending over half-a-million dollars on political advertisements attacking candidate Brian Dubie without registering as a political action committee (“PAC”) with the Secretary of State’s Office, filing required disclosure reports, and by failing to include proper identification information on its ads. The Court dismissed GMF’s contention that its television spots could not be regulated because they focused only on issues. Rather, it ruled that the ads fell squarely within the law’s reach: “There can be no serious argument that the purpose of GMF’s advertisements was not to oppose Brian Dubie’s campaign for governor.”

The Court also rejected GMF’s argument that Vermont’s law is unconstitutional, holding that the campaign finance disclosure requirements are valid and enforceable under the First Amendment. It concluded that, as construed by the Court, the statute is clear enough for people to determine its intended meaning and does not cover protected speech. In its ruling, the Court articulated objective factors, such as the timing, images, tone and intended audience of an ad, to be used in determining whether the ad’s purpose is to support or oppose a candidate, or “to influence voters to vote yes or no on a candidate.” Attorney General William Sorrell welcomed the decision, noting that it followed United States Supreme Court precedent confirming the validity of disclosure requirements in election law. “Vermont’s disclosure laws play an important role in preserving the integrity of our elections. They allow Vermonters to better evaluate campaign messages and provide voters with information to help identify who is trying to influence their votes. This is particularly true as we are seeing more and more PAC activity in our campaigns,” said Attorney General Sorrell.

 In addition, the Court ruled in favor of the State on its cross-appeal, reversing in part the lower court’s decision to impose only a $10,000 penalty for GMF’s violations.  The Court held that the lower court erred by failing to consider assigning a penalty for GMF’s identification violation while noting the vast potential number of individual violations.  The Court explained that “the difficulty of calculating a penalty [does not] mean that no penalty can be awarded.”  It remanded the case to the trial court for consideration of the appropriate penalty to be imposed for the violation of the identification requirement.

  Website consulting provided by The National Association of Attorneys General.