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March 1, 2006
Supreme Court Not Sympathetic To Campaign Finance Limits

Yesterday, Vermont had to defend campaign-finance limits that have been challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, where the state found a rather cold reception. Chief Justice John Roberts had Vermont's attorney general, William Sorrell on the defensive and sounding somewhat evasive as Roberts wondered why Vermont's electorate just doesn't throw corrupt people out of office:

The chief justice challenged the attorney general's assertion that money was a corrupting influence on Vermont's political system, the state's main rationale for its law. "How many prosecutions for political corruption have you brought?" he asked the state official.

"Not any," Mr. Sorrell replied.

"Do you think corruption in Vermont is a serious problem?"

"It is," the attorney general replied, noting that polls showed that most state residents thought corporations and wealthy individuals exerted an undue influence in the state.

The chief justice persisted. "Would you describe your state as clean or corrupt?" he asked.

"We have got a problem in Vermont," Mr. Sorrell repeated.

The chief justice pressed further. If voters think "someone has been bought," he said, "I assume they act accordingly" at the next election and throw the incumbent out.

He also challenged a line from the attorney general's 50-page brief, an assertion that donations from special-interest groups "often determine what positions candidates and officials take on issues." Could the attorney general provide an example of such an issue, Chief Justice Roberts asked. Mr. Sorrell could not, eventually conceding that "influence" would have been a better word than "determine."

In this report by the New York Times, the court seems rather antagonistic to both the spending limits imposed by Vermont on its candidates for office and of the contribution limits as well. In fact, this entire conversation shows the silliness of the contribution limit effort. The Attorney General had to stand in front of the Supreme Court and describe his state as corrupt, and yet his office has not prosecuted one person for political corruption. That is nothing less than either a blatant admission of incompetence or the natural result of a witch hunt gone awry.

This folly of imposing artificial limits and designations on campaign contributions does nothing to address corruption, and only makes lawyers rich as they become indispensable in navigating these Byzantine regulations for political candidates. Rather than create an open political process, the rules tend to drive efforts underground, and in Vermont's case protect incumbents and keep challengers from the opportunity to change government.

The only real solution to electoral corruption is immediate reporting and an end to limits on contributions. That would force everyone into the sunlight and allow voters to support whomever they see fit. It also allows the voters to know who gave what to whom and to make up their own minds about undue influence. The way Vermont limits contributions and spending, all it does is institutionalize any potential existing corruption by putting more hurdles in front of the challengers that could remedy it.

Perhaps Vermont voters might want to start cleaning up their state government by replacing the Attorney General who sees corruption all around him and yet, by his own admission, has done nothing to stop it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 1, 2006 6:18 AM

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