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U.S. Supreme Court Refuses To Review Vermont Campaign Finance Challenge

American flag with cash
Steve Johnson/Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court has turned aside a challenge to Vermont's campaign finance law, ending a five-year legal battle.

The Vermont Right to Life Committee had challenged Vermont’s campaign finance law, arguing that its PAC and its Independent Expenditures Committee were separate entities. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the group’s Fund for Independent Expenditures was not independent and was functionally indistinguishable since the two committees shared board members and staff, transferred funds to one another, and jointly planned activities.

The U.S. Supreme Court let the lower court decision stand. Vermont Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan says this will impact other PACs and their activity in Vermont.  “There are essentially two kinds of PACs in the campaign finance world. There are those that make contributions directly to candidates. Those are what I guess I would call regular PACs. Then there are groups that don’t make contributions to candidates but instead they create ads independently. So what Vermont Right to Life Committee did was it created a group and they then wanted to accept unlimited contributions into it. The problem was that they didn’t separate that from a functionally indistinguishable PAC that was making direct contributions to candidates. All they did was create a separate name and a separate bank account in essence. So other groups are now going to have to, if they’re going to be creating expenditure PACS, they’re going to have to truly make separate ones.”

Vermont Right to Life Treasurer Sharon Toborg says they challenged the state campaign finance law because they felt it was too vague and wanted clarification.  “We don’t believe the law as written is clear and it’s therefore unconstitutional.  But the Supreme Court did not agree to take up the challenge at this time. One thing that’s particularly frustrating is the Attorney General has said if you’re an organization like Vermont Right to Life that has some shared staff or shared board members then you aren’t allowed to have an independent expenditure political committee. And it really puts small organizations at a disadvantage because the more powerful, more wealthy organizations have the resources to maintain these distinctions that the Attorney General seems to want  to see.”

Vermont Public Interest Research Group Executive Director Paul Burns says the Supreme Court turning aside the challenge is a proper decision.  “This is one case where our court process said the law is clear enough.  What was done by Vermotn Right to Life Committee in this case was impermissable. Ultimately it’s a good ruling for Vermont’s voters and for the public that wants to see whatever limits we can put on large contributions and the amount of money in politics. This at least upholds some reasonable restrictions on the amount of money that can go into political elections. It’s somewhat unusual for this Supreme Court to allow for any restrictions or limits on money flowing into races. In that respect it’s a little bit  unusual.”

Toborg is concerned that a number of groups in the state are violating the state campaign finance law.  “Vermont Right to Life political committees have been following the law to the best of our ability. So it’s not going to make any change in what we have done and will do in the future, because we have been complying with the law. But there are a lot of other organizations out there that haven’t been and they need to be held accountable.”

The rejection by the high court brings the case, which was initiated in 2009, to a close.

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