George Will

WASHINGTON -- Campaign finance reform is what it pretends to combat: corruption. The Supreme Court should have said something like that when it struck down, as unconstitutional abridgments of free speech, Vermont's severe limits on contributions to and spending by campaigns.

Instead, the court cobbled together a majority by producing a muddle. The court still wallows waist deep in the muddy waters of its 1976 opinion in Buckley v. Valeo.

In that, the court declared campaign spending limits unconstitutional restrictions on speech. But the court upheld limits on contributions because such limits supposedly serve a compelling interest -- combating corruption or the appearance thereof. Because corruption has long been illegal, reformers stress appearances.

Monday's opinion, written by Stephen Breyer (joined by John Roberts and Sam Alito; Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurrence; Clarence Thomas, joined by Antonin Scalia, embraced the result but not the reasoning) held to Buckley's ban on spending limits. Breyer declared Vermont's contribution limits (the nation's tightest -- $400 to candidates for statewide offices) too severe and, characteristically, laid down a fog of five criteria for judging acceptable limits -- criteria that will generate dozens more cases.

Thomas recognized that the likelihood of the rule of law, of principled government action, is related inversely to the number of criteria the court concocts for determining what political contribution limits are just right. What qualifies judges for this judgment, or how the First Amendment permits it, is unclear. So Thomas sensibly advocated overturning Buckley, allowing people to give, and candidates to spend, what they like, and allowing voters to sort things out. What a concept.

During oral arguments last February, Chief Justice Roberts asked Vermont's attorney general, ``How many prosecutions for political corruption have you brought?'' The attorney general: ``We have not had any.'' Roberts: ``Do you think that political corruption in Vermont is a serious problem?'' Attorney general: ``It is.'' Roberts: ``Would you describe your state as a clean state politically or as a corrupt one?'' Attorney general: ``We have got a real problem in Vermont.''

Roberts asked the attorney general for an example to validate his assertion that campaign contributions from Vermont interest groups ``often determine what positions candidates and officials take on issues.'' The attorney general answered that he could not offer an example, and said ``influence'' would be more accurate than ``determine.'' People trying to influence elections and government? Heaven forfend. In another clarification, sort of, the attorney general said the problem is ``undue influence.'' So there.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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