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Court upholds 'soft money' ban

Divided justices Wednesday affirmed key parts of campaign-finance law, the most important such decision in nearly 30 years.

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In the high court's landmark 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the justices said corporations and unions could be barred from placing election advertisements but only when they involved "express advocacy" for a particular candidate. Corporations and unions interpreted the restrictions to mean that as long as their ads did not use magic words like "Vote for Smith" or "Throw out Jones," their issue-oriented ads - even ads critical of a particular candidate - would enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment.

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No more. The majority justices declared that the express advocacy restriction established in the Buckley decision was a mere product of statutory interpretation by the high court, not a constitutional command. They abandoned it because, they said, it created a loophole that had been widely exploited.

"Buckley's express advocacy line ... has not aided the legislative effort to combat real or apparent corruption, and Congress enacted BCRA to correct the flaws it found in the existing system," Justices Stevens and O'Connor write.

The ruling comes as a result of lawsuits filed by more than 80 individuals and groups - including both major political parties - seeking to overturn the law. A range of campaign-reform groups and lawmakers supportive of the law urged that it be upheld. A federal court panel in May upheld parts of it and struck down others. But that decision was stayed, allowing the law to remain in effect pending the high court review.

In upholding the soft-money ban, the court said Congress did not violate constitutional safeguards in prohibiting national political parties, federal candidates, and federal office holders from soliciting or receiving funds other than those raised in compliance with federal source and amount limitations.

Money collected under those limitations is referred to as hard money. Money raised outside the regulated process for campaign finance is called soft money. Party receipts of soft money increased from $19 million in 1980 to $496 million in 2002.

As part of its ruling upholding the soft-money ban, the high court also upheld requirements that state political committees be barred from using soft money to finance activities related to elections with federal candidates on the ballot.

Mr. Ornstein says benefits of the finance law are already been seen. "We're not getting the same kinds of shakedowns of big donors from parties and candidates, selling of access by government officials," he says. "Are they going to find loopholes? Of course they will," he says. Ornstein, who helped draft key parts of the law, says the law wasn't meant to be perfect. "It was a pragmatic attempt to put some broad boundaries around the system."

One of the few measures struck down was a provision banning political contributions from minors. It was an attempt to prevent parents from funneling excessive campaign contributions to a party or candidate by using their children's names. The court said the provision violates the First Amendment rights of minors.

Linda Feldmann contributed.