Buckley v. Valeo

Studying the Buckley v. Valeo case, or interested in learning more? We break down the summary, brief, key players, facts and outcomes for you on TestMax.

Buckley v. Valeo Summary

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Buckley and other appellants who were former political candidates. The Court held that the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act’s provisions limiting a candidate’s spending from private funds and limiting total campaign spending were unconstitutional as violations of the First Amendment. The Court also held that the 1971 Act improperly gave Congress the power to appoint FEC staff, who were not “Officers of the United States”, to engage in enforcement duties which were reserved for “Officers of the United States”.

Key Players in Buckley v. Valeo

  • 1Appellants: Buckley, a 1970 candidate for the U.S. Senate and senator at the time the lawsuit was filed.
  • 2Appellees: Valeo, Secretary of the U.S. Senate who had duties related to the FEC.

Buckley v. Valeo Brief

The central themes of this case are campaign spending limits, the Federal Election Commission, federal regulation of campaign spending limits, the First Amendment, equal protection, and the Fifth Amendment.

Buckley v. Valeo Facts

The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act limited campaign spending by a political committee to $5,000, by an individual or group to $1,000, and individual yearly spending to $25,000. The lawsuit was filed by former candidates for office who claimed that the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 violated the First Amendment by restricting the “communication” that is made possible through the campaign spending that was limited by the Act. They also claimed that the Act was unconstitutional because the “reporting and disclosure” provisions, as applied to the activities of a political campaign, encroached upon the “freedom of association” given to such groups under the Constitution. Federal subsidies created by the Act were seen as violating the General Welfare Clause, the First Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment.

The Buckley v. Valeo Decision

The Court held that federal regulation empowering the Federal Election Commission to enforce limitations on campaign spending was unconstitutional. Specifically, it noted that provisions limiting campaign spending, “independent” spending by individuals and groups, or a candidate’s spending from private funds were unconstitutional. It also stated that Federal Election Commission employees were not “Officers of the United States”—as defined under Article 2 of the Constitution—such that they could enforce the spending limitations described in the regulation. The Court ruling noted that, through the Act in question, Congress gave an agency enforcement powers which should only be given by the President to “Officers of the United States” under the Appointments Clause in Article II (2) (cl. 2) of the Constitution. That is, the Court noted that the powers retained by the agency under the Act were the powers reserved for “Officers of the United States”, who must be appointed according to the Appointments Clause, and that Congress cannot appoint (cannot give such enforcement powers to) “Officers of the United States”.

As far as the appellant’s First Amendment argument, the Court held that the Act’s limitations on a candidate’s spending from private funds and on total campaign spending were unconstitutional because they constituted “substantial and direct restrictions” on “protected political expression”. With respect to the appellant’s claim that certain provisions in FECA for public financing of presidential election campaign conventions and other activities were unconstitutional, the court held that those provisions were not “contrary to the general welfare”, were not “inconsistent with the First Amendment”, and were not discriminatory such that they violated either the Due Process Clause or the Fifth Amendment. The Court noted that the federal subsidies were constitutional. It also affirmed the lower court ruling that the reporting and disclosure requirements were “overbroad” as applied to smaller campaigns. It noted that the disclosure requirements served “substantial government interests” and did not excessively “burden associative rights”. It, thereby, distinguished the Buckley case from NAACP v. Alabama which involved specific, negative incidences (i.e., “proof of injury”) which impacted those who were subject to disclosure rules and, thus, concluded with a holding which ruled the disclosure rules to be unconstitutional restrictions on “freedom of association”. The Court rejected the appellant’s assertion that a “blanket exemption” from the disclosure standard was needed for smaller campaigns, noting that “proof of injury” is what is needed to prove that such a disclosure standard is unconstitutional as applied to a specific group.

Key Takeaways for Law Students

  • 1The power to enforce campaign spending limits is reserved for “Officers of the United States”, who must be appointed according to the provisions of Article II (2) (cl. 2) of the Constitution, also known as the Appointments Clause.
  • 21971 FECA limitations on a candidate’s spending from private funds and on total campaign spending were unconstitutional because they constituted violations of the First Amendment.