Buckley v. Valeo

From Academic Kids

Buckley v. Valeo (424 US 1) was a court case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on November 10, 1975, and decided on January 30, 1976.


Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1971 (creating the Federal Election Commission), amended Subtitle H of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (amended in 1974, and passed the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act. These were signed into law by President Richard Nixon, becoming the first major pieces of modern campaign finance reform legislation. The key parts of this legislation limited contributions to candidates for federal office (2 USC 441a), required the disclosure of political contributions (2 USC 434), provided for the public financing of presidential elections (IRC Subtitle H), limited expenditures by candidates and associated committees, except for presidential candidates who accepted public funding (formerly 18 U.S.C. 608(c)(1)(C-F)), limited independent expenditures to $1000 (formerly 18 U.S.C. 608e); limited candidate expenditures from personal funds (formerly 18 U.S.C. 608a), and fixed the method of appointing members to the FEC (formerly 2 U.S.C. 437c(a)(1)(A-C)).

A civil lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on January 2, 1975, by Senator James L. Buckley of New York, former Senator and 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and others. The suit was filed against Francis R. Valeo, the Secretary of the Senate and ex officio member of the FEC who represented the U.S. federal government.

The petitioners sought for the district court to overturn the key provisions outlined above. They argued that the legislation was in violation of the First and Fifth Amendment rights to freedom of expression and due process, respectively.


In a lengthy per curiam decision, the court sustained the Act's limits on individual contributions, as well as the disclosure and reporting provisions and the public financing scheme. However, the limitations on campaign expenditures, on independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and on expenditures by a candidate from his personal funds were found to be constitutionally infirm in that they placed severe restrictions on protected expression and association, yet lacked any compelling countervailing government interest necessary to sustain them.


Some believe that this precedent is incompatible with democracy, because it allows those with great wealth to effectively drown out the speech of those not able to influence election outcomes through large financial contributions. Organizations working to overturn Buckley include ReclaimDemocracy.org, the National Voting Rights Institute, and Public Interest Research Groups. Justice Byron White, in dissent, argued that the entire law should have been upheld, in deference to Congress's greater knowledge and expertise on the issue.

From the other side, some disagree vigorously with Buckley on the grounds that it sustained some limits on campaign contributions. This position was advanced by Chief Justice Warren Burger in his dissent, who claimed that he could discern no constitutional difference between individual contributions and expenditures, as both are protected speech acts. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, argued for overturning Buckley on these grounds, but were rebuffed in 2003's 5-4 decision in McConnell v. FEC, upholding the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 ("McCain-Feingold Bill"). This legislation included a prohibition on soft money as well as limits on independent expenditures by private groups.


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