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Supreme Court Overturns Vermont Campaign Finance Law

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We take a look to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Vermont’s campaign finance law. The 1997 law placed the nation’s tightest restrictions on much candidates running for state office in Vermont could spend on elections and on how much individuals could bankroll candidates. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Comstock-Gay is here with us in the Firehouse studio, Executive Director of the National Voting Rights Institute. We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Your organization argued this before the Supreme Court.


AMY GOODMAN: How significant is this?

STUART COMSTOCK-GAY: Well, it’s important in a number of ways. First, as the law goes, some ways this is status quo, it doesn’t change a lot of what’s happening in the country. What’s really important, though, is first, in Vermont it struck the laws, and so the state of Vermont no longer has contribution limits or spending limits. So it’s kind of the Wild West, or the Wild East, if you will, in Vermont right now. But it also shows a sign that the court has moved significantly to the right. We’re seeing this in a number of opinions. But this is more evidence that this court is not your grandfather’s Supreme Court, or maybe it is your great-grandfather’s Supreme Court, but it’s not the court we’ve known to know and love. It’s a court that’s going to be problematic in all kinds of ways for the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the law enacted in 1997 in Vermont change Vermont politics? And what does this mean, in terms of setting precedent for states that have engaged in these clean campaign laws?

STUART COMSTOCK-GAY: Sure. So if you think about campaign finances, three primary areas: how much people can give to a campaign, how much a campaign can spend, and whether or not it’s publicly financed or not. This law included all three of those things. And the Supreme Court said you could no longer limit how much candidates can spend. That’s consistent with rulings in the past. We were hoping that they would make a change in that.

They also struck Vermont’s contribution limits. And so now, people can give unlimited dollars to Vermont candidates. That’s the biggest change that they’ve had in this law, and that is not likely to affect other laws around the country, but it certainly is going to create more litigation.

The third area that’s really important and where we all need to put a lot of energy these days is on public financing. Nothing in this law changes the way public financing clean-money campaigns can work, so the Maine law, the Arizona law, the Connecticut law, the law in New York City, the law in a lot of cities, those won’t change. And we all need to redouble our efforts to pass those.

AMY GOODMAN: Why won’t they change?

STUART COMSTOCK-GAY: Because the court did not rule about public financing of campaigns. They only talked about whether or not people can contribute and in what amounts and how much the campaign can spend of its own money.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this say about the new court?

STUART COMSTOCK-GAY: What it says about the new court is, first of all, fortunately, only Scalia and Thomas continued to say, 'We think there ought to be no laws whatsoever about campaign spending.' So they didn’t get any more people to join their side. But what it also said was, it was the first time the court struck down any contribution limits law in the country. They have upheld every one and said, 'We won't muck around in the details of the laws.’ This time, they did. And that’s not a good sign.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Dean, at the time, was the governor who signed off on this.

STUART COMSTOCK-GAY: The governor signed this, and he said, ’Let’s not kid ourselves. Money does change the way politics are run and the positions we take.’ And that’s why he signed it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Stuart Comstock-Gay, Executive Director of the National Voting Rights Institute, for joining us today.

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