Buckley v. Valeo

424 U.S. 1 (1976)

Quick Summary

Senator James L. Buckley (plaintiff) challenged the Federal Election Campaign Act’s restrictions on political contributions and expenditures, arguing they infringed upon First Amendment rights. Francis Valeo (defendant) represented the FEC, which enforced the Act.

The dispute addressed whether contribution and expenditure limits were constitutional and if the FEC’s structure violated separation of powers. The Supreme Court ruled that while contribution limits were valid to prevent corruption, expenditure limits violated free speech protections, and certain aspects of the FEC’s composition were unconstitutional.

Facts of the Case

Senator James L. Buckley (plaintiff) and others challenged the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended in 1974, which imposed limitations on political contributions and expenditures. The Act also established the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce its provisions.

Buckley argued that the FECA’s restrictions violated the First Amendment’s free speech protections and that the FEC’s composition infringed the doctrine of separation of powers.

The legislation in question sought to regulate the financing of political campaigns, including individual and group contributions, campaign spending limits, disclosure requirements, and public funding for Presidential campaigns. The dispute centered on whether these provisions were compatible with constitutional guarantees of free expression and association.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Buckley filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Francis Valeo (defendant), a representative of the FEC.
  2. The district court denied relief, and the court of appeals affirmed.
  3. Buckley appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the FECA’s limits on political contributions and expenditures violate the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and whether the FEC’s composition violates the separation of powers doctrine.

Rule of Law

The integrity of the electoral process must be protected from corruption and the appearance of corruption, but this must be balanced against fundamental First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court recognized that political contributions and expenditures are intertwined with fundamental First Amendment activities such as speech and association. The Court differentiated between contributions, which symbolically express support, and expenditures, which are more directly connected to political communication.

The Court found that expenditure limits imposed more severe restrictions on freedom of expression than contribution limits. While Congress has the power to regulate federal elections, any limitations on political contributions and expenditures must not infringe upon First Amendment freedoms unless justified by a compelling governmental interest.

The prevention of corruption or its appearance was considered a sufficient governmental interest to justify some limitations on contributions, but not such stringent limits on independent expenditures.


The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of contribution limits to candidates but struck down expenditure limits as violating the First Amendment. The Court also found that certain aspects of the FEC’s composition were unconstitutional.

Key Takeaways

  1. Contribution limits to candidates are constitutional if they are intended to prevent corruption or its appearance.
  2. Expenditure limits on political campaigns are unconstitutional as they impose severe restrictions on First Amendment freedoms.
  3. The composition of the Federal Election Commission must comply with constitutional requirements for separation of powers.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a compelling governmental interest that justifies restrictions on First Amendment freedoms?

A compelling governmental interest is a fundamental and crucial purpose that allows the government to impose restrictions on constitutional freedoms, such as the First Amendment right to free speech, if such restrictions are narrowly tailored to achieve that purpose. In cases involving freedoms of speech and association, any restrictions must serve a significant government interest and be the least restrictive means to achieve that goal.

  • For example: Ensuring national security or preventing electoral corruption can justify limitations on freedom of speech provided such restraints are specifically targeted to address the concern without unnecessarily infringing on broader expression.

How do contribution limits to political candidates differ from expenditure limits in terms of constitutional scrutiny?

Contribution limits are monetary caps on how much individuals can donate to political candidates, aimed at preventing corruption or its appearance. They receive intermediate scrutiny as they are deemed less intrusive upon First Amendment rights, emphasizing transparency over restriction. Expenditure limits set caps on spending for political campaigning and often face strict scrutiny as they directly limit the amount and manner of political speech and expression.

  • For example: If a law caps individual donations to a campaign at $1,000 to prevent undue influence, it’s considered a contribution limit. However, a law that restricts a campaign from spending more than $50,000 on advertising would be an expenditure limit, raising substantial First Amendment concerns.

What role does the doctrine of separation of powers play in the context of administrative agencies like the FEC?

The doctrine of separation of powers requires that federal agencies like the Federal Election Commission (FEC) operate within the bounds of authority granted by legislation and without usurping powers designated to other branches of government. This ensures checks and balances by preventing any branch from gaining excessive power or control over another.

  • For example: If the composition of the FEC is determined by Congress but grants the executive branch unchecked power to appoint all members, it could violate the principle of separation of powers by unduly consolidating power in the executive.


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