Election money limits upheld
By Wire services
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court says corruption concerns outweigh free speech rights in elections.
Published December 11, 2003
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court struck a blow Wednesday against the "growing evil ... of big money" in American politics, ruling that Congress can stop the free flow of cash from corporations, unions and the wealthy to fund political parties and buy campaign-style broadcast ads.
The 5-4 decision upholds nearly all of last year's broad campaign finance reform law, calling it a modest effort to ensure that the political system responds to the interests of ordinary voters, not just to those with the most money.
It was the most significant campaign funding ruling since such laws were enacted in the post-Watergate era of the 1970s.
The law passed by Congress last year banned unlimited donations, known as "soft money," from individuals, corporations and labor unions to political parties. Those donations - often reaching six figures or more - had come to dominate the fundraising process. The law also imposed limitations on political advertising by special interest groups.
"Just as troubling to a functioning democracy as classic quid pro quo corruption is the danger that officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder," Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority.
Rooting out corruption, or even the appearance of it, justifies limitations on the free speech and free spending of contributors, candidates and political parties, the court said.
"We are under no illusion that (the law) will be the last congressional statement on the matter," Stevens and O'Connor wrote. "Money, like water, will always find an outlet."
That already has happened, with groups being formed to collect donations and spend money in ways not covered by the law.
Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
"No doubt Congress was convinced by the many abuses of the current system that something in this area must be done," Rehnquist wrote. "Its response, however, was too blunt."
Scalia called it "a sad day for the freedom of speech."
"Who could have imagined," Scalia wrote, that the same court that gave free-speech protection to tobacco advertising and sexually explicit cable TV shows "would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government."
The ruling means the limits put in place by Congress last year will apply to the 2004 election, including the first presidential delegate selection contests in Iowa and New Hampshire next month.
Although the ruling applies to candidates for federal office, it is likely to reverberate at the state and local level as well. In recent years, even municipalities have enacted curbs on raising and spending money for campaigns.
The justices struck down two provisions of the new law - a ban on political contributions from those too young to vote and a limitation on some party spending that is independent of a particular candidate.
The new law is the broadest reform since 1974, when in the wake of the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford signed a law creating the Federal Election Commission. It limited individual and political action committee contributions to candidates to $1,000 and $5,000 per election, respectively.
Soft money donations were not included in the law, and the parties sought to exploit this loophole. In the last election cycle, the three Democratic campaign committees raised about $246-million in soft money, compared with $250-million for Republicans.
In exchange for the soft money ban, the new campaign finance law raised the limits on the more strictly regulated contributions known as "hard money." The limits on how much an individual can give to a federal candidate rose to $2,000 an election.
The campaign finance law is often known as "McCain-Feingold" - named for its chief Senate sponsors, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
"This opinion represents a landmark victory for the American people in the effort to reform their political system," congressional authors of the law said.
"Now that the court has spoken, we must make sure that the law is properly interpreted and enforced," said a joint statement by McCain, Feingold, and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
The ruling cleared the way for the four lawmakers to pursue new changes in campaign finance law. They already have introduced legislation to increase the enforcement powers of the Federal Election Commission and to overhaul public financing of presidential campaigns. President Bush and Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean and John Kerry have chosen not to take taxpayers' money to avoid the restrictions imposed by the law.
Justices hear arguments on redistricting
WASHINGTON - A skeptical Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed unlikely to fully back either side's position in arguments over Pennsylvania's oddly drawn congressional map.
At issue is a 19-district map that was drawn last year by the Republican-controlled state Legislature and that forced three Democratic lawmakers out of office. The high court debated whether drawing districts to favor one party over another can be constitutional or a matter best left for states.
A handful of other states, including Florida and Texas, also are grappling with similar issues.
The justices challenged the Democrats to define the standard of "fairness" they're seeking from the courts, and questioned whether the Republican insistence on no limits in political map-drawing made any sense.
- Information from the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, New York Times and Knight Ridder News Service was used in this report.
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