Vermont's Act 64 stringently limited both the amounts that candidates for state office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties may contribute to those campaigns. The law limited the amount a candidate for governor may spend in a two-year election cycle to $300,000; a candidate for lieutenant governor to $100,000, and other statewide offices to $45,000. State senators and representatives were limited to spending between $4,000 and $2,000, depending on their district. The Vermont law also set the lowest limits in the nation on donations, capping gifts at $200 for state House campaigns over a two-year election cycle; $300 for state Senate seats, and $400 for statewide offices. Both political parties and political committees were subject to these same limits. A political committee is subject to these same limits.
Soon after Act 64 became law, opponents brought suit against the state officials charged with enforcing the Act, arguing that the contribution and expenditure limits violated the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court held that the expenditure limits violated the First Amendment's free speech guarantees as set forth in Buckley v. Valeo (1976). The money a candidate spent in an election was equivalent to free speech and any limit on that would be an unconstitutional infringement on that right.
The Court also found that the limits on donations to a campaign were far too stringent. The justices said that some limits on donations were constitutional as part of an effort to control the influence of money in politics, but the Vermont law's donation limits raised "substantial restrictions on the ability of candidates to raise the funds necessary to run a competitive election." The low limits on how much an individual could donate to a candidate made it especially difficult for challengers, thus giving an undue advantage to incumbents. The main opinion also noted four additional problems: that the limits were not adjusted to inflation; that they also applied to political parties, harming their right to association; that the level of political corruption in Vermont did not seem unusually serious; and that the law would force volunteers to count their expenses as campaign contributions.
The case demonstrated that the issue continues to produce sharp debate among the justices. They filed six separate opinions.