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Buckley v. Valeo

Buckley v. Valeo
Argued November 10, 1975
Decided January 30, 1976
Full case name James L. Buckley, et al. v. Francis R. Valeo, Secretary of the United States Senate, et al.
Citations 424 U.S. 1 (more)
96 S. Ct. 612; 46 L. Ed. 2d 659; 1976 U.S. LEXIS 16; 76-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) P9189
Subsequent history As amended.
The Court upheld federal limits on campaign contributions and ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech.
Court membership
</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Case opinions</th></tr><tr><td colspan="2" style="text-align:center">

Per curiam.</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Majority</th><td> Per curiam, joined by Brennan, Stewart, Powell; Marshall (in part); Blackmun (in part); Rehnquist (in part); Burger (in part); White (in part).</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concur/dissent</th><td> Burger</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concur/dissent</th><td> White</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concur/dissent</th><td> Marshall</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concur/dissent</th><td> Blackmun</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concur/dissent</th><td> Rehnquist</td></tr><tr><td colspan="2" style="text-align:center"> Stevens took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Laws applied</th></tr><tr><td colspan="2" style="text-align:center"> U.S. Const. amend. I, Article II, Sec. 2, cl. 2</td></tr></table> Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), was a landmark case in American campaign finance law. In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down on First Amendment grounds several provisions in the 1974 Amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act. The most prominent portions of the case struck down limits on spending in campaigns, but upheld the provision limiting the size of individual contributions to campaigns. The Court also narrowed, and then upheld, the Act's disclosure provisions, and struck down (on separation of powers grounds) the make-up of the Federal Election Commission, which as written allowed Congress to directly appoint members of the Commission, an executive agency.


In 1974, over the veto of President Gerald Ford, Congress passed significant amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, creating the first comprehensive effort by the federal government to regulate campaign contributions and spending. The key parts of the amended law did the following:

  • 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 voluntarily 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),
  • created and fixed the method of appointing members to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) (formerly 2 U.S.C. §437c(a) (1)(A-C)). Eight members of the commission were to be chosen as follows: the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives were ex officio members of the Commission without a right to vote, two members would be appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate upon recommendations of the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, two would be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives upon recommendations of the majority and minority leaders of the House, and two would be appointed by the President. The six voting members would then need to be confirmed by the majority of both Houses of Congress. In addition there was a requirement that each of the three appointing authorities was forbidden to choose both of their appointees from the same political party.

A lawsuit was filed in the District Court for the D.C., on January 2, 1975, by Senator James L. Buckley, Conservative Party Senator from New York, former Senator, 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from Minnesota, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, the Peace & Freedom Party, the Libertarian Party, and numerous other plaintiffs. The named defendant in the caption was Francis R. Valeo, the Secretary of the Senate an ex officio member of the FEC who represented the U.S. federal government. The trial court denied plaintiffs' request for declaratory and injunctive relief. Plaintiffs then appealed to the Court of Appeals and finally to the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs argued that the legislation violated the 1st and 5th Amendment rights to freedom of expression and due process, respectively.


In a per curiam opinion, Supreme Court held that several key provisions of the Campaign Finance Act, § 608(a), which limited expenditure at election campaigns were unconstitutional, and contrary to the First Amendment. The major holdings were as follows:

  • The Court upheld limits on contributions to candidates
  • The Court struck down limits on expenditures by candidates
  • The Court struck down limits on independent expenditures (i.e., expenditures by other groups or individuals than candidates and political parties)
  • The Court upheld mandatory disclosure and reporting provisions, after narrowing the types of speech to which they could apply
  • The Court upheld a system of voluntary government funding of campaigns, including limits on spending by candidates who choose to accept government subsidies
  • The Court struck down the system by which members of Congress directly appointed Federal Election Commission commissioners

The Court's opinion begins by stating certain "General Principles," and then dealing with individual parts of the law in turn.

General Principles

  • First, the Court cited the importance of the First Amendment issues at stake: "The Act's contribution and expenditure limitations operate in an area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities. Discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution. The First Amendment affords the broadest protection to such political expression in order 'to assure (the) unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.'”
  • These issues included "political association as well as political expression."
  • The Court rejected the idea that limits on campaign contributions and spending merely limited conduct: "[T]his Court has never suggested that the dependence of a communication on the expenditure of money operates itself to ... reduce the exacting scrutiny required by the First Amendment." (Citing New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, and noting that sending a telegram to a public official - a clearly protected activity - cost money).
  • Further, even if considered "conduct," the Court found that "it is beyond dispute that the interest in regulating the alleged 'conduct' of giving or spending money 'arises in some measure because the communication allegedly integral to the conduct is itself thought to be harmful.'"
  • The restrictions were not justified under the "times, places, and manner" clause giving the government the authority to regulate elections: The restrictions were "direct quantity restrictions on political communication and association by persons, groups, candidates, and political parties."
  • The Court affirmed a First Amendment interest in spending money to facilitate campaign speech, writing, "A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached." Further, the law's "$1,000 ceiling on spending 'relative to a clearly identified candidate,' would appear to exclude all citizens and groups except candidates, political parties, and the institutional press from any significant use of the most effective modes of communication." (citations omitted).
  • However, "limitation[s] upon the amount that any one person or group may contribute to a candidate or political committee entails only a marginal restriction upon the contributor's ability to engage in free communication," because such persons or groups were free to communicate directly with voters. Nevertheless, "[g]iven the important role of contributions in financing political campaigns, contribution restrictions could have a severe impact on political dialogue if the limitations prevented candidates and political committees from amassing the resources necessary for effective advocacy."
  • "The Act's contribution and expenditure limitations also impinge on protected associational freedoms. Making a contribution, like joining a political party, serves to affiliate a person with a candidate."
  • Finally, the Court concluded this section by stating, "In sum, although the Act's contribution and expenditure limitations both implicate fundamental First Amendment interests, its expenditure ceilings impose significantly more severe restrictions on protected freedoms of political expression and association than do its limitations on financial contributions."

Turning to the specific provisions of the law, the Court held as follows:

Contribution Limits

  • The Court held that restrictions on "large campaign contributions" were justified by the state's interest in "the prevention of corruption and the appearance of corruption spawned by the real or imagined coercive influence of large financial contributions on candidates' positions and on their actions if elected to office." The Court further defined "corruption" to mean "large contributions ... given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders."
  • The Court rejected the plaintiffs' claim that all "contribution limitations must be invalidated because bribery laws and narrowly drawn disclosure requirements constitute a less restrictive means of dealing with 'proven and suspected quid pro quo arrangements.'”
  • Thus the Court upheld the limits on contributions to candidates and their campaign committees, and to parties and political action committees, in the Act.

Expenditure Limits

  • The Court first reiterated that "[t]he Act's expenditure ceilings impose direct and substantial restraints on the quantity of political speech." It reviewed the sweeping scope of the law, noting, "The plain effect of [the Act} is to prohibit all individuals, who are neither candidates nor owners of institutional press facilities, and all groups, except political parties and campaign organizations, from voicing their views 'relative to a clearly identified candidate' through means that entail aggregate expenditures of more than $1,000 during a calendar year. The provision, for example, would make it a federal criminal offense for a person or association to place a single one-quarter page advertisement 'relative to a clearly identified candidate' in a major metropolitan newspaper."
  • The Court first held that the "key operative language of the provision ...[-] “any expenditure . . . relative to a clearly identified candidate”- was unconstitutionally vague, for it "fails to clearly mark the boundary between permissible and impermissible speech, unless other portions of [the Act] make sufficiently explicit the range of expenditures covered by the limitation. The section prohibits 'any expenditure . . . relative to a clearly identified candidate during a calendar year which, when added to all other expenditures . . . advocating the election or defeat of such candidate, exceeds, $1,000.' (Emphasis added.) This context clearly permits, if indeed it does not require, the phrase “relative to” a candidate to be read to mean 'advocating the election or defeat of' a candidate." The Court elaborated in a footnote that "[t]his construction would restrict the application of [the law] to communications containing express words of advocacy of election or defeat, such as 'vote for,' 'elect,' 'support,' 'cast your ballot for,' 'Smith for Congress,' 'vote against,' 'defeat,' 'reject.'"
  • Even after having narrowed the scope of the provision, however, the Court found that limits on expenditures were unconstitutional. "We find that the governmental interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption is inadequate to justify s 608(e)(1)‘s ceiling on independent expenditures." "First, assuming, arguendo, that large independent expenditures pose the same dangers of actual or apparent quid pro quo arrangements as do large contributions, Sec. 608(e)(1) does not provide an answer that sufficiently relates to the elimination of those dangers. Unlike the contribution limitations' total ban on the giving of large amounts of money to candidates, Sec. 608(e)(1) prevents only some large expenditures. So long as persons and groups eschew expenditures that in express terms advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, they are free to spend as much as they want to promote the candidate and his views. The exacting interpretation of the statutory language necessary to avoid unconstitutional vagueness thus undermines the limitation's effectiveness as a loophole-closing provision by facilitating circumvention by those seeking to exert improper influence upon a candidate or office-holder."
  • "Second, quite apart from the shortcomings ... in preventing any abuses generated by large independent expenditures, the independent advocacy restricted by the provision does not presently appear to pose dangers of real or apparent corruption comparable to those identified with large campaign contributions. ... The absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate or his agent not only undermines the value of the expenditure to the candidate, but also alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidate. Rather than preventing circumvention of the contribution limitations, Sec. 608(e)(1) severely restricts all independent advocacy despite its substantially diminished potential for abuse."
  • The Court rejected the notion that a "governmental interest in equalizing the relative ability of individuals and groups to influence the outcome of elections serves to justify the limitation on express advocacy of the election or defeat of candidates imposed by Sec. 608(e)(1)‘s expenditure ceiling. ... [T]he concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment, which was designed 'to secure "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources,"’ and ‘"to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people."’ ”
  • Thus the Court struck down limits on both candidate and independent spending as unconstitutional.

Reporting & Disclosure Requirements

  • The Court recognized that reporting and disclosure requirements infringe on First Amendment rights. "[W]e have repeatedly found that compelled disclosure, in itself, can seriously infringe on privacy of association and belief guaranteed by the First Amendment."
  • However, the Court held that the government had a vital interest in "provid[ing] the electorate with information 'as to where political campaign money comes from and how it is spent by the candidate' in order to aid the voters in evaluating those who seek federal office," in allowing "voters to place each candidate in the political spectrum more precisely than is often possible solely on the basis of party labels and campaign speeches," and because "the sources of a candidate's financial support also alert the voter to the interests to which a candidate is most likely to be responsive and thus facilitate predictions of future performance in office." Further, "disclosure requirements deter actual corruption and avoid the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity." Finally, "recordkeeping, reporting, and disclosure requirements are an essential means of gathering the data necessary to detect violations of the contribution limitations described above."
  • However, the Court again found the statute's reach, as written, to be unconstitutionally overbroad. It thus ruled that the Act's disclosure requirements applied to "individuals and groups that are not candidates or political committees only in the following circumstances: (1) when they make contributions earmarked for political purposes or authorized or requested by a candidate or his agent, to some person other than a candidate or political committee, and (2) when they make expenditures for communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate."

Public Funding of Campaigns

  • The Court ruled that the government could directly subsidize political campaigns, but that it could not require candidates to forego private fundraising if they chose to do so instead of taking the subsidy.
  • The Court held that the government could condition receipt of the campaign subsidy on a candidate's voluntary agreement to limit his total spending.

Make-up of FEC

  • The Court held that the method for appointments to the Federal Election Commission was an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers.[1] The Court opined that these powers could properly be exercised by an "Officer of the United States" (validly appointed under Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution) but held that the Commissioners could not exercise this significant authority because they were not "appointed". Id. at 137. Burger and Rehnquist agreed that limits on expenditure were unconstitutional, but dissented otherwise, stating that they would have held much larger parts of the Act to be unconstitutional.


Only 8 Justices heard the case. The opinion was a per curiam opinion, that is, not authored by a single justice, but an opinion for the Court. Several justices dissented from portions of the opinion.

Justice White would have upheld the Act in its entirety.

Justice Marshall dissented only on the point of limiting contributions by a candidate to his or her own campaign - he would have upheld that provision, which was stricken by the Court.

Justice Rehnquist dissented on the application of the public funding provisions to minor parties, believing that it was unconstitutional as applied to them.

Justice Blackmun would have held that contribution limits were unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Burger would have held that contribution limits were unconstitutional, that the government financing provisions were unconstitutional, and that disclosure of small contributions to campaigns was unconstitutional.


Despite criticism of Buckley for being both too protective of political spending and contributions, and for not being protective enough, the case remains the starting point for judicial analysis of the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions.

Although the decision upheld restrictions on the size of campaign contributions, by striking down limits on expenditures the Court decision left in place a demand for money. By limiting the supply of funds (contribution limits) but not the demand for funds, this may have increased fund raising pressures on candidates. The decision left intact the ability of government to offer direct funding for campaigns, but not to force candidates to accept public funding and accompanying limits on expenditures. The Court's decision also upholds the public disclosure of political contributions, but only contributions made to candidates and parties, organizations with the primary purpose of influencing campaigns, and for contributions used to directly advocate for or against a candidate. As such, Buckley set the stage for the eventual re-emergence of so-called "dark money," money spent by organizations with a primary purpose other than campaigning, using funds not donated specifically for campaigns.

Perhaps most important for the future development of the law was Buckley's unequivocal rejection of the promotion of equality as a basis for limiting contributions or spending. This has significantly limited any effort to promote political equality through regulation of campaign spending and contributions. In 2008, the Court further restricted attempts to equalize spending in elections for the U.S. House and Senate when it struck down the "Millionaires Amendment" in FEC v. Davis (originally Davis v. FEC). That case overturned legislation that allowed candidates to accept larger contributions if their opponent spent substantially from personal wealth. In 2010, the Court overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) and part of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In Citizens United, the Court, following Buckley's holding providing more expansive First Amendment protections for independent expenditures made on a candidate's behalf, held that Congress could not ban independent expenditures by corporations. The next year, in Arizona Free Enterprise PAC v. Bennett (2011) the Court further restricted state authority to regulate campaign finance to achieve greater equality, striking down provisions of Arizona's public financing system that gave extra government money to candidates who faced high spending opponents or high levels of independent expenditures.

See also

Further reading

  • Smith, Craig R. (2003). "Buckley v. Valeo". In Parker, Richard A. (ed.). Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. pp. 203–217. ISBN 0-8173-1301-X. 


  1. ^ nb Associate Justice Harry Blackmun's papers indicate that Associate Justice William Rehnquist drafted the separation-of-powers portion of the per curiam opinion.

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