In Brown v. Hartlage, 456 U.S. 45 (1982), the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky court’s decision invalidating the election of a county commissioner under a provision of Kentucky’s Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibited candidates from offering benefits in exchange for votes.

While running for commissioner, Carl Brown and his opponent had pledged to take less than the $20,000 per year that the law allocated for the commissioner’s salary. When Brown, who won the election, realized that this pledge might be illegal under Sparks v. Boggs (Ky. 1960), he retracted it; his opponent challenged his election. The Jefferson County Circuit Court and Kentucky’s Court of Appeals nonetheless declared his election void.

Justice William J. Brennan Jr., in the opinion for the Court, began by acknowledging that the states had “a legitimate interest in preserving the integrity of their electoral processes.” Political campaigns were, however, “traditionally at the heart of American constitutional democracy,” and a “political candidate does not lose the protection of the First Amendment when he declares himself for public office.”

Compelling state interest

Any state restriction of that right must be “compelling.” Although states had the right to prevent candidates from buying votes, “there are constitutional limits on the State’s power to prohibit candidates from making promises in the course of an election campaign.”

In this case, Brown had made his promise “openly, subject to the comment and criticism of his political opponent and to the scrutiny of the voters.” His offer scarcely amounted to “a particularized acceptance or a quid pro quo arrangement.” Although the state might fear only those of independent wealth being in a position to seek political office, it must choose acceptable means to avoid such an end.

Brennan added that the First Amendment “embodies our trust in the free exchange of ideas as the means by which the people are to choose between good ideas and bad, and between candidates for political office.”

Further analogizing the law at hand with judicial decisions relative to libel law, including New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), Brennan observed that Brown had made his decision in “good faith,” had no knowledge of its falsity, and had quickly repudiated it when its legality was called into question.

Justice William H. Rehnquist authored a brief concurring opinion in which he said that the Court should “give more weight to the State’s interest in preventing corruption in elections” and argued that the precedent in Mills v. Alabama (1966) provided a stronger foundation for the majority decision than did its reliance on libel law precedents.

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