CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF KENTUCKY.
Brennan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., concurred in the judgment. Rehnquist, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 62.
JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question presented is whether the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment,
prohibits a State from declaring an election void because the victorious candidate had announced to the voters during his campaign that he intended to serve at a salary less than that "fixed by law."
This case involves a challenge to an application of the Kentucky Corrupt Practices Act. The parties were opposing candidates in the 1979 general election for the office of Jefferson County Commissioner, "C" District. Petitioner, Carl Brown, was the challenger; respondent, Earl Hartlage, was the incumbent.*fn1 On August 15, 1979, in the course of the campaign, Brown held a televised press conference together with Bill Creech, the "B" District candidate on the same party ticket. Brown charged his opponent with complicity in a form of fiscal abuse:
"There are . . . three part-time county commissioners. With state law limiting their authority and responsibility to legislation . . . , it is clear that their jobs are simply not worth $20,000 a year each. It is ludicrous that the part-time commissioners nevertheless see fit to pay themselves the same amount as that paid the full-time county judge. The mere fact that state law allows such outrageous levels of remuneration does not in itself justify those payments. . . . At a fiscal court meeting in 1976, Hartlage led a surprise move to . . . more than double the salaries of the county commissioners! His actions demonstrated his unmistakable disrespect for the office of the chief executive of this county and his utter disdain for the spirit of laws that govern our county system. . . . [Using] the gray fringes of the law for his
own personal gain, Hartlage led the move to funnel county tax dollars into commissioners' pockets." App. 1-2.
On behalf of himself and his running mate, Creech pledged the taxpayers some relief:
"We abhor the commissioners' outrageous salaries. And to prove the strength of our convictions, one of our first official acts as county commissioners will be to lower our salary to a more realistic level. We will lower our salaries, saving the taxpayers $36,000 during our first term of office, by $3,000 each year." Id., at 2.*fn2
Shortly after the press conference, Brown and Creech learned that their commitment to lower their salaries arguably violated the Kentucky Corrupt Practices Act. On August 19, 1979, they issued a joint statement retracting their earlier pledge:
"We are men enough to admit when we've made a mistake.
"We have discovered that there are Kentucky court decisions and Attorney General opinions which indicate that our pledge to reduce our salaries if elected may be illegal.
". . . [We] do hereby formally rescind our pledge to reduce the County Commissioner's salary if elected and instead
pledge to seek corrective legislation in the next session of the General Assembly, to correct this silly provision of State Law." Id., at 4-5.
In the November 6, 1979, election, Brown defeated Hartlage by 10,151 votes.*fn3 Creech was defeated.
Hartlage then filed this action in the Jefferson Circuit Court, alleging that Brown had violated the Corrupt Practices Act and seeking to have the election declared void and the office of Jefferson County Commissioner, "C" District, vacated by Brown. Section 121.055, upon which Hartlage based his claim, provides:
"Candidates prohibited from making expenditure, loan, promise, agreement, or contract as to action when elected, in consideration for vote. -- No candidate for nomination or election to any state, county, city or district office shall expend, pay, promise, loan or become pecuniarily liable in any way for money or other thing of value, either directly or indirectly, to any person in consideration of the vote or financial or moral support of that person. No such candidate shall promise, agree or make a contract with any person to vote for or support any particular individual, thing or measure, in consideration for the vote or the financial or moral support of that person in any ...