Buckley v. Valeo

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Buckley v. Valeo
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
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
Case opinions
Per curiam.
Concur/dissent Burger and Rehnquist (would have struck down more of the Act)
Dissent White, Marshall, and Blackmun (would have held Act constitutional)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I, Article II, Sec. 2, cl. 2

Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), was a case in which a majority of the Supreme Court of the United States struck down several provisions in the 1974 Amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act, a law that limited campaign expenditures, independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and expenditures by a candidate from personal funds. It introduced the idea that money counts as speech, and eliminated any previous restraints on unlimited spending in US election campaigns. The Court upheld the provision which sets limits on individuals' campaign contributions.

A minority of the court (White, Blackmun, and Marshall) would not have held any part of the Act unconstitutional. The case was significant because it opened a chain of decisions, including Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed people with more monetary support to become more politically influential. This set the United States at odds with the practice in the rest of the democratic world, particularly in Europe (see Bowman v. United Kingdom[1]), Latin America and the Commonwealth (see Harper v. Canada (Attorney General)[2]) where rules designed to limit spending at elections are common.


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 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 of New York, former Senator, 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and others. The suit was filed against Francis R. Valeo, the Secretary of the Senate an ex officio member of the FEC who represented the U.S. federal government. The court denied plaintiffs' request for declaratory and injunctive relief. Plaintiffs then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The petitioners sought for the district court to overturn the key provisions outlined above. They argued that the legislation was in violation of the 1st and 5th Amendment rights to freedom of expression and due process, respectively.


The majority of the Supreme Court held that a key provision of the Campaign Finance Act, § 608(a), which limited expenditure at election campaigns was "unconstitutional", and contrary to the First Amendment. The leading opinion viewed spending money as a form of political "speech" which could not be restricted. The government only had a compelling interest in preventing "corruption or its appearance", and so it was only contributions that should be targeted because of the danger of "quid pro quo" exchanges. Otherwise the majority of the Court sustained the Act's limits on individual contributions, as well as the disclosure and reporting provisions and the public financing scheme. Brennan, Stewart, and Powell joined in the leading opinion. The majority also held that the method for appointments to the Federal Election Commission was an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers.[3] The Supreme 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.

By contrast, White, Blackmun, and Marshall each gave strong dissenting opinions, stating that it was unwarranted to regard expenditure limits as unconstitutional. They would have therefore sustained the whole Act as compatible with the First Amendment.

The leading opinion (Brennan, Stewart and Powell) included the following.

Burger gave a partly dissenting opinion, stating that the Act was an unwarranted intrusion on private rights of election finance.

White gave a dissenting opinion, stating that no part of the Act should be regarded as unconstitutional because Congress had greater knowledge and expertise on the issue. He said the following.[4]

Marshall gave a dissenting opinion, stating that he did not regard campaign expenditure limits as unconstitutional.

Blackmun gave a short dissenting opinion saying that he did not think it was possible to regard expenditure limits as unconstitutional.

Rehnquist gave a dissenting opinion, stating like Burger that large parts of the Act were contrary to the First Amendment.

Stevens did not take part in the hearing or the decision in the case.


Although the decision upheld restrictions on the size of campaign contributions, because it struck down limits on expenditures some argue that this precedent allows those with great wealth to effectively drown out the speech of average citizens. Among those criticizing the decision on this line was philosopher John Rawls, who wrote that the Court's decision "runs the risk of endorsing the view that fair representation is representation according to the amount of influence effectively exerted."[5]

From the other side, some disagree vigorously with Buckley, arguing that it sustained limits on campaign contributions which are protected by the First Amendment as free speech. This position was advanced by Chief Justice Warren Burger whose dissenting opinion argued that individual contributions and expenditures are protected speech acts. In recent years, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who were not on the Court at the time of Buckley, have unsuccessfully argued for overturning Buckley on these grounds. Despite criticism of Buckley from both sides, the case remains the starting point for judicial analysis of the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions, as in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.

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 restrictions, 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[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. ^ [1998] ECHR 4, (1998) 26 EHRR 1
  2. ^ [2004] SCR 827
  3. ^ nb Associate Justice Harry Blackmun's papers indicate that Associate Justice William Rehnquist drafted the separation-of-powers portion of the per curiam opinion.
  4. ^ 424 US 260-1
  5. ^ Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press. 361.

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