High Court Enters Campaign Finance Dispute


Wednesday September 28, 2005 2:16 AM
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will take a new look at spending limits on candidates and interest groups, giving President Bush's court picks an immediate chance to rewrite rules for politicians and deep-pocket donors.

The new chief justice and the successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will be major players in the latest free-speech clash over the influence of money in elections.

Conservative justices like Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas have opposed government meddling in political speech and may find new muscle in the Bush justices.

O'Connor's retirement strips the court of a deciding vote to uphold limits. Bush is expected to name her replacement soon.

John Roberts may be confirmed by the Senate this week as chief justice, replacing William Rehnquist, who sometimes endorsed limits on campaign giving.

``I think we're likely to enter into an era where the court is more skeptical and will strike down campaign finance rules,'' said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School.

The court just two years ago on a 5-4 vote upheld the broadest restrictions on campaign donations in nearly 30 years. O'Connor was an author of the decision, which prompted Scalia to write that it was ``a sad day for the freedom of speech.''

The Supreme Court term begins next week, and justices on Tuesday released a list of about a dozen cases that will be reviewed. Among them were a new challenge to the 2002 federal law, known as ``McCain-Feingold'' for its chief Senate sponsors, and a test of strict contribution and spending limits in Vermont.

``It's hard to overestimate how significant these two cases are together,'' said James Bopp Jr., an election attorney involved in both.

An anti-abortion group, Wisconsin Right to Life, was barred last year from running ads that mentioned Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who was up for re-election. Bopp said in the group's appeal that an exception should be made for grass-roots issue ads that coincide with elections.

The Vermont case requires justices to revisit their 1976 decision in a case known as Buckley v. Valeo. It struck down limits on candidates' spending but allowed restrictions on contributions to federal candidates.

Opponents and supporters of the 1998 Vermont campaign finance law had encouraged the high court to resolve once and for all whether spending limits are permissible.

A federal appeals court had largely upheld the state law that limits individual contributions to a candidate to $200 or $400 per election cycle, depending on the office being sought. It also says no one running for governor can spend more than $300,000 per election cycle and sets smaller spending caps for lower-tier candidates.

Vermont's law has been tied up in court and never has gone fully into effect. Gov. James Douglas spent nearly $682,000 to get re-elected last year, and other candidates spent well over the law's caps.

Where core First Amendment principles are at stake, courts must bring a healthy skepticism to claims that candidates and non-candidates spend too much time and money on the political process, justices were told in court papers by lawyers for the Vermont Right to Life Committee, the Vermont Republican State Committee and others.

``By setting its limits so low and applying them so broadly, Vermont makes it difficult for many candidates to raise necessary finances,'' the groups said in asking the Supreme Court to take the case.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said in a filing that the ``never-ending desire for campaign money has forced candidates to become beholden to large groups of contributors and special interests that control access to such funds.''

Senate leaders, state judges and many groups filed arguments in the Vermont case, giving a glimpse of the fight that will play out before justices early next year. O'Connor's replacement will likely be confirmed by then.

The cases are Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission, 04-1581, and Randall v. Sorrell, 04-1528, Vermont Republican State Committee v. Sorrell, 04-1530, and Sorrell v. Randall, 04-1697.