Buckley v. Valeo | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Buckley v. Valeo | Summary & Analysis



Federal Election Campaign Act

First passed in 1971 the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) was originally focused on increasing campaign contribution disclosures in order to combat corruption. In 1974 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, which involved the illegal acceptance and use of campaign donations by President Richard Nixon, Congress amended the law to include limitations on campaign contributions and spending. The law specified that "individual political contributions are limited to $1,000 to any single candidate per election, with an overall annual limitation of $25,000 by any contributor; independent expenditures by individuals and groups 'relative to a clearly identified candidate are limited to $1,000 a year.'" The law also put limits on how much a candidate could donate to their own campaign. The law also mandated that "contributions and expenditures above certain threshold levels must be reported and publicly disclosed." In addition, the law established the Federal Election Commission (FEC), set out the method for selecting leadership of the FEC, and established a voluntary government funding option for campaigns.

FECA was designed to eliminate corruption in elections by limiting campaign contributions, enhancing reporting of contributions, and restricting how much of their personal funds candidates could spend on their own campaign. By creating the FEC, the law created an office for oversight of national elections and campaigns. The goal of the FECA in creating the FEC was to ensure candidates were not spending campaign funds in unethical ways or receiving too much money from any one source, which could affect their behavior in office, including favoring laws that were advocated by their largest donors.

Buckley v. Valeo

In 1975 Senator James L. Buckley, former senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, and several other plaintiffs brought suit against Francis Valeo, secretary of the Senate and a member of the FEC. They claimed that the FECA was unconstitutional because it violated the 1st (freedom of speech) and 5th (freedom from self-incrimination) Amendments. They argued that "limiting the use of money for political purposes constitutes a restriction on communication violative of the 1st Amendment, since virtually all meaningful political communications in the modern setting involve the expenditure of money." The plaintiffs also argued that the required disclosures violated their right to freedom of association.

The core argument against limitations on what outside groups or individuals could spend campaigning for "clearly identified candidates" was that doing so restricted political speech. Buying an ad in a newspaper advocating for a candidate to be elected or running a television commercial against a candidate was framed as a 1st Amendment issue, and the government limiting an individual's ability to do so was therefore a violation of free speech.

The Court's Opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for Buckley v. Valeo in October 1975 and delivered their opinion on January 30, 1976. The opinion was written per curiam, which means that no one justice authored it (which typically takes place) and that all justices concurred at least in part. Justices William Brennan, Potter Stewart, and Lewis Powell were in full concurrence, or agreement. Justices Thurgood Marshall, William Rehnquist, Byron White, and William Burger dissented in part, meaning they disagreed with one or more parts of the ruling but were in concurrence on others. The Court ruled to uphold limitations on campaign contributions by individuals, a publicly funded option for campaigns, and the creation of the FEC. However, they ruled to overturn limitations on independent spending on behalf of campaigns and on candidates' ability to use their own personal funds for their campaigns. The Court argued that these limitations amounted to a restriction of free speech, although individual contributions to campaigns did not amount to speech in the same way because giving more did not increase a contributor's "voice." The Court also overturned Congress's role in appointing leadership of the FEC.

Dissenting Opinions

Dissenting opinions were authored by Justices Thurgood Marshall, William Rehnquist, Byron White, Harry Blackmun, and William Burger, each of whom had separate concerns regarding the majority opinion. Notably, however, none of them had a fundamental disagreement with the majority opinion. Instead, each of them had smaller points of departure, particularly around statutes they felt should be upheld.

Justice White favored striking down only the FEC's appointment process rather than the limitations on spending and contributions imposed by FECA. He favored keeping limitations on spending and contributions, noting in particular that limitations on spending by candidates "helps to assure that only individuals with a modicum of support from others will be viable candidates. This in turn would tend to discourage any notion that the outcome of elections is primarily a function of money."

Justice Marshall favored maintaining limitations on personal contributions and expenditures that candidates could make, writing, "One of the points on which all Members of the Court agree is that money is essential for effective communication in a political campaign. It would appear to follow that the candidate with a substantial personal fortune at his disposal is off to a significant 'head start.' Of course, the less wealthy candidate can potentially overcome the disparity in resources through contributions from others."

Chief Justice Burger argued against limitations on campaign contributions, writing, "The contribution limitations infringe on 1st Amendment liberties." He also felt that reporting mandates should not be upheld, writing, "The Act's disclosure scheme is impermissibly broad and violative of the 1st Amendment as it relates to reporting contributions in excess of $10 and $100." More broadly, he argued that "the Court's result does violence to the intent of Congress in this comprehensive scheme of campaign finance." By breaking up the act, he felt the Court was doing damage to the act's intent, and that "the Court fails to recognize that the whole of this act is greater than the sum of its parts."

Justice Blackmun felt that campaign contribution limitations were unconstitutional and wrote, "I am not persuaded that the Court makes, or indeed is able to make, a principled constitutional distinction between the contribution limitations, on the one hand, and the expenditure limitations, on the other, that are involved here."

Justice Rehnquist disagreed with limitations imposed on minor party candidates, which he felt caused undue burden that could impact elections. He wrote, "[The Court] has enshrined the Republican and Democratic Parties in a permanently preferred position, and has established requirements for funding minor-party and independent candidates to which the two major parties are not subject."


Buckley v. Valeo was a highly influential case that has been used as precedent in other campaign finance cases. The case was referenced in the 1978 case First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which established the right of corporations to donate to ballot initiative campaigns under the 1st Amendment. More recently, it was cited in the 2010 case Citizens United v. FEC, which overturned restrictions on political spending by corporations. Buckley v. Valeo is considered a groundbreaking moment in campaign financing, establishing that freedom of speech does apply to political spending in some cases.

Buckley v. Valeo was also important because of the precedents it set for spending in campaigns. Limitations on donations to campaigns have stayed in place and been strengthened through stricter reporting requirements. The freedom of individuals, outside groups, and the candidates themselves to spend money campaigning on a candidate's behalf, which was set out in this case, remains a key part of the election cycle in the United States. Super PACs, or political action committees, have become extremely powerful, putting millions of dollars into campaigning for and against candidates at a national level. Super PACs are highly controversial. While some argue that money in politics has been detrimental to democracy, others agree with the idea that political spending is a form of free speech and therefore cannot be restricted.

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