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Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Gov’t PAC: US Supreme Court Upholds Campaign Contribution Restrictions

The Supreme Court of the United States recently considered whether Missouri’s limits on campaign contributions violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment free speech guarantees found in the Constitution of the United States.

In 1997, Missouri voters approved a ballot initiative that established limits on campaign contributions. The limits ranged from $250 to $1,000, depending on the demographics of the candidate’s constituency. The limits were indexed for inflation. At the time this lawsuit was filed, the limits were $275/$1,075.

A political action committee, Shrink Missouri Government PAC, along with a candidate for office in the 1998 election (collectively, “Challengers”) filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. The Challengers claimed that the limits interfered with their First Amendment free speech rights because the contribution limits affected an individual’s ability to support a candidate. The Challengers specifically argued that the $1,000 limit in the statute was unconstitutionally low, since in a 1976 opinion (Buckley v. Valeo), the Supreme Court of the United States approved a campaign contribution restriction of $1,000, which in today’s dollars has approximately one-third of the value that it did in 1976.

The trial court found the Missouri statute constitutional. The court found that there was adequate support for the law’s intended purpose of protecting the integrity of government and rejected the argument that approval of a $1,000 limit in 1976 meant that such a limit could not be constitutional today. The Challengers appealed.

The appellate court reversed the trial court, finding that Buckley had established a heightened standard of review that Missouri’s statute could not pass. The appellate court found that Missouri’s articulated interest in enacting legislation was not sufficiently compelling; to pass this hurdle, the appellate court stated that the state must show examples of actual corruption necessitating such measures. The state’s evidence failed to demonstrate that such measures were needed. Missouri appealed this decision.

The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the trial court, reversing the appellate court. The Court explained that Buckley created a distinction between expenditures (the overall amount an individual may be able to contribute)and contributions (limits on contributions to individual candidates). Restrictions on expenditures are direct restraints on speech and are subject to a heightened judicial review. But restrictions on specific campaign contributions are not a direct restraint on speech because they do not interfere with an individual’s ability to engage in the political process. Thus, Buckley applied different review standards to expenditure limits and contribution limits. For a contribution limit to be constitutional, the limit must advance a significant government interest and not unnecessarily interfere with any other speech rights.

The Court found that the Missouri statute passed the Buckley test for contribution limits. The State of Missouri’s interest in preventing both corruption as well as the appearance of corruption was sufficient to justify the statute. The Court also found that the statute was drafted in a manner that did not improperly interfere with other speech activities. The Court cited evidence submitted to the trial court which showed that in the year prior to enactment of the statute limiting contributions, nearly 98% of all contributors gave less than the contribution maximums established by the statute. The Court rejected the Challengers’ argument that Buckley created a dollar minimum that subsequent statutes had to clear; rather, Buckley established an analytical framework to evaluate future legislation. Missouri’s statute passed the Buckley test.

While Justice Souter delivered the Court’s opinion in this case, four other Justices weighed in with separate opinions. Notable were the two dissenters (Justices Kennedy and Thomas), who called for overruling the Buckley analytical framework.

Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Gov’t PAC, 528 U.S. 377, 120 S. Ct. 897 (2000).