Federal ruling opens door to unlimited corporate spending in Vermont elections

Attorney General Bill Sorrell is applauding a federal court decision that he says upholds Vermont’s campaign finance laws. But the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions on Thursday effectively overturns the state’s $2,000 limit on political-action committees, opening the door to SuperPACs in Vermont.

“The State has not offered a persuasive basis on which to limit contributions to a political action committee that only makes independent expenditures,” Sessions said.

The case centers on the Vermont Right to Life Committee, which argued that Vermont’s $2,000 limit on contributions to political-action committees violated its rights to free speech.

Sessions rejected that argument, saying that Vermont Right to Life’s PAC is “enmeshed completely” with a separate VRLC group that contributes directly to candidates.

To undo contribution limits on the PAC run by the Vermont Right to Life Committee, Sessions said, would enable the group to circumvent constitutionally justified limits on contributions to candidates.

Sorrell called Session’s ruling a victory forVermont.

“The Court’s ruling provides resounding confirmation of … the State’s ability to address Vermonter’s concerns about the influence of money in politics,” he said in a statement.

But while Sessions upheld the contribution limits in this specific case, he said “the State’s arguments do not provide grounds to doubt the broadly-held view that states may not limit contributions to independent-expenditure-only groups receive from single sources.”

Put simply, if a political action committee operates independent of candidates, and organizations that contribute to them, then the $2,000 limit would likely fail constitutional muster.

In light of Citizens United especially, Sessions said, any limit on independent expenditures will likely be found to violate the First Amendment.   

“The issue of independence from candidates is the touchstone of the contribution limits’ constitutionality,” he said.

The decision could open the door to increased corporate spending onVermontelections, which have yet to see the kind of SuperPAC activity now influencing national politics.

Link to Sessions’ decision: http://www.atg.state.vt.us/assets/files/194%20VRLC%20MSJ%20Decision.pdf

Link to Attorney General press release: http://www.atg.state.vt.us/

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