Brown v. Hartlage

LOCATION: Turner Turnpike

DOCKET NO.: 80-1285
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 456 US 45 (1982)
ARGUED: Jan 20, 1982
DECIDED: Apr 05, 1982

Fred M. Goldberg - on behalf of the Petitioner
L. Stanley Chauvin, Jr. - as amicus curiae

Facts of the case


Media for Brown v. Hartlage

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 20, 1982 in Brown v. Hartlage

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 05, 1982 in Brown v. Hartlage

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

I have for announcement the opinion for the Court in No. 80-1285, Brown versus Hartlage.

It's a case here on certiorari to the Court of Appeals of Kentucky.

Petitioner Brown defeated respondent, Hartlage in the 1979 general election in Kentucky for the office of Jefferson County Commissioner, and respondent brought this action in a state court to have the election declared void alleging that petitioner had violated the Kentucky Corrupt Practices Act.

The alleged violation consisted of a campaign speech by the petitioner in which he promised that if elected, he'd lower his salary by $3,000 a year.

The Corrupt Practices Act prohibits candidates from making any promise as to action when elected, if that promise is made in consideration for a vote.

And the Kentucky Court of Appeals held that petitioner's promise did violate the Corrupt Practices Act and rejected respondent's -- or petitioner's argument that it so construed the Act violated the First Amendment.

And the Court, therefore, declared the office vacant and ordered a new election.

We reverse.

It's of course true that states have a legitimate interest in preserving the integrity of their electoral processes, but when a State seeks to uphold that interest by restricting speech, limitations on state authority imposed by the First Amendment are manifestly implicated.

When a State seeks to restrict directly as this Kentucky Act does, the offer of ideas by a candidate to the voters, the First Amendment requires that the restriction be demonstrably supported not only by a legitimate state interest, but a compelling one, and that the restriction operate without unnecessarily circumscribing protected expression.

The Kentucky statute as applied to petitioner's promise violates the First Amendment under that analysis.

The Court of Appeals analogized petitioner's promise to a bribe.

However too, that may be as a matter of Kentucky law, there's no constitutional basis upon which petitioner's pledge to reduce his salary might be equated with a candidate's promise to pay voters for their support from his own pocketbook, like a promise to lower taxes, to increase efficiency in government, or indeed, to increase taxes to provide some group with a desired public service, petitioner's promise to reduce his salary cannot be deemed beyond the reach of the protection of the First Amendment or considered as inviting the kind of corrupt arrangement, the appearance of which I state may have a compelling interest in avoiding.

There's no showing that petitioner made the promise other than in good faith and without knowledge of its falsity, or that he made it with reckless disregard, whether it was false or not.

Moreover, petitioner retracted the promise promptly after discovering that it might have violated the Act.

Under all the circumstances, nullifying petitioner's election victory was inconsistent with the atmosphere of robust political debate protected by the First Amendment.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Kentucky Court of Appeals and remand for proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion.

Justice Rehnquist has filed a concurring opinion, concurring in the result.

The Chief Justice concurs in the judgment.