THE US Supreme Court is scrutinizing how America's national political parties can spend their campaign dollars - a case with potentially far-reaching implications for election financing.
The case out of Colorado pits free-speech against federal attempts to prevent corruption and the "purchase" of elections by moneyed interests.
At issue: whether a party has the right to finance and spend freely on a general campaign of political speech and education - or whether such spending falls under laws that more narrowly regulate how a particular candidate is promoted.
The case argued before the high court Monday is one of a growing number of cases challenging 20 years of federal laws governing political financing. It put the Colorado Republican Party and the Federal Election Commission on opposite sides.
Monday's case dates to a 1986 dispute, when the Colorado GOP spent $15,000 on radio ads attacking US Rep. Tim Wirth (D) as he prepared to announce his candidacy for the United States Senate.
Colorado Democrats filed suit with the FEC, saying the ads were illegal. Democrats contend the Colorado GOP was not permitted to fund an ad campaign against Mr. Wirth because, prior to Wirth's entrance in the Senate race, all state party funding had been turned over to a national GOP group.
In 1993, a federal court in Denver said the Republican expenditure was not a violation of FEC laws since it did not specifically advocate a candidate's election or defeat. But a US Court of Appeals last year overturned the lower court, arguing that the Colorado GOP money was used for an "electioneering message" about a particular candidate.
Colorado Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court, saying, in the words of their lawyer Jan Witold Baran, that limiting spending on political speech "is no different than limiting political speech itself."
In an unusual pairing, the GOP is joined by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU, in a friend-of-the-court brief, argues against the FEC's detailed restrictions on speech the agency regards as political.
Both Congress and the Supreme Court have upheld laws that restrict campaign contributions and the financing of political campaigns.
The FEC, represented by US Solicitor General Drew Days of the Justice Department, will rely on a decision outlined in the landmark 1976 Supreme Court ruling of Buckley v. Valeo. In Buckley, the court found that the government has a compelling interest in preventing campaign corruption, or even the appearance of such corruption. According to the Buckley ruling, individual candidates can spend as much as they want, in accordance with First Amendment principles. But spending and financing by the party are subject to regulation.
In the Colorado radio-ad case, the coordination between the state GOP and the national GOP violates that regulation, according to Mr. Days.
The Colorado case, in fact, is just one of a litany of challenges - both for and against FEC regulations. Last month the AFL-CIO said it plans to spend $35 million in a general union campaign to defeat GOP candidates next fall - a plan Republicans say is illegal. The AFL-CIO says the spending will be "educational" and not target single candidates.
Also in March, a federal court ruled that general spending and activities inside a political action committee are not subject to FEC disclosure laws. The federal judge ruled that GOPAC, the Republican action committee once headed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is free to operate outside oversight so long as it does not target specific candidates.