Buckley v. Valeo

Following is the case brief for Buckley v. Valeo, United States Supreme Court,(1976)

Case summary for Buckley v. Valeo:

  • Senator Buckley brought suit against Federal Election Commission (FEC) representative, Valeo, in district court.
  • Buckley alleged Congress did not have the authority to appoint commissioners of the FEC and that the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech.
  • The Supreme Court held that the actions of Congress did violate the Appointments Clause because its primary responsibilities were to conduct litigation, set rule making authority and determine funds.
  • In addition, the Court held that the limitations on campaign contributions are constitutional, but the FECA provision which limits a contributor’s own campaign is unconstitutional as it violates their ability to participate in freedom of expression.

Buckley v. Valeo Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

In 1974, FECA, was amended. The amendment limited the amount on both individual and group political contributions. Reporting and public disclosure of contributions and expenditures had to occur if the amount exceeded a certain amount. A six member FEC was created for public funding of Presidential campaign activities to enforce and carry out the legislation. Made up of six members, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President each elected two members. The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives were ex officio members who did not have voting privileges. James Buckley, a U.S. Senator, filed a claim against Francis Valeo, an FEC representative in federal district court. Buckley alleged that the separation of powers doctrine precluded Congress from giving itself authority to appoint the commission’s members because the FEC had broad rulemaking and enforcement authority.  He also claimed the FECA violated freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Procedural History:

The district court denied Buckley relief. Buckley appealed and the court of appeals affirmed. Buckley then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Article II’s Appointments Clause vests the power to appoint U.S. officers exclusively in the President. Creating federal limits on general campaign expenditures, expenditures by an individual candidate from personal funds and independent expenditures are not permitted, as spending money to influence elections in a form of speech protected under the Constitution.

Issues and Holdings:

  1. Does the FEC violate the U.S. Constitution’s Appointments Clause? Yes.
  2. Do federal limits on specific political expenditures from different sources violate the First Amendment? Yes.


The court of appeals’ judgment was reversed in part and affirmed in part.


The Court held that the Appointments Clause of Article II vests the power to appoint “Officers of the United States” exclusively in the President. When an agency’s members are appointed by Congress, it may exercise its powers in an informative and investigative nature. However, agency members may not exercise powers outside of the legislative functions of Congress.

The Court held that in the present case, Congress exceeded its constitutional powers when it authorized its own officers to make FEC appointments. As a result, the informative and investigatory powers of the FEC members are constitutional. In contrast, the commission’s substantial powers are not, and violate the Appointments Clause because its primary responsibilities are to conduct civil litigation, set rule making authority and determine funds for federal elective office.

The Court also held that parts of FECA are constitutional while others are not. The First Amendment extends broad protections to Political expression and political association both receive broad protections under the First Amendment. This spending of money, which is implied for political campaigns, is properly viewed as speech and as a result, subjected to strict scrutiny.

The court points out that even if the FECA regulations were analyzed under the O’Brien test, several provisions would likely fail. A restriction on the total a person or group may spend during a campaign on political communications reduces the quantity of expression because it restricts the number of issues discussed, the size of the audience and the depth of research into the issues. Since the FECA provisions equate to a substantial restraint on both the quantity and diversity of political speech, they violate the First Amendment.

The limitation on the amount towards a candidate or political committee is only a marginal restriction on the contributor’s free speech. This contribution serves as a general expression of support, not a communication of the basis for the contributor’s support. The measure of the contributor’s speech does not increase in relation to the size of his contribution. This is because the expression rests solely on the symbolic act of contributing. As a result, the limitations on individual contributions are constitutional.

The Court held that limits on self-expenditures in connection with the contributor’s own campaign is unconstitutional under the First Amendment since the limitation imposes a substantial restraint on the ability of persons to engage in First Amendment expression. The status of a candidate does not extinguish First Amendment protection to engage in discussion of public issues and vigorously advocate their own election. Here, the First Amendment right to freedom of expression outweighs the government’s interest in equalizing resources and preventing corruption. As a result, FECA violates the First Amendment because it places a substantial and direct restriction on an association, citizens or candidate’s ability to engage in political expression.


Buckley v. Valeo restructured campaign laws. Limitations on contributions from individuals and groups are no longer included in the law, so long as the individuals and groups are free from any ties with campaigns. This case also established the ability of a candidate to spend as much of their own money as they like.

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