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John Edwards trial: What will verdict mean for campaign finance? (+video)

Closing arguments in the John Edwards trial are set to begin Thursday. But the political significance of the trial in defining the limits of campaign finance has been greatly dampened. 

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“If we lived in a different world and this money had gone to a nonconnected valid [super PAC], there would be no problem here,” says Donald Tobin, a law professor at the Moritz School of Law at Ohio State University in Columbus. “This was not express advocacy … it’s not electioneering, and it doesn’t even feel like a campaign contribution.”

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“A 501c(4) [super PAC] could say this is a nonconnected association of individuals allowed to engage in noncoordinated campaign activity,” he says.

Not everyone shares that view. If Edwards actually were involved, “then there’s coordination, so independent spending wouldn’t come into play,” says Rick Hasen, a law professor and campaign-finance expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Yet the Citizens United ruling has been cited by at least one politician in an attempt to have a campaign-finance conviction overturned. Former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas will cite the ruling in an appeal. Earlier this year he was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally funding Republican candidates in Texas in 2002. Mr. DeLay has said the idea in Citizens United, of corporate donations qualifying as constitutionally protected free speech, would nullify the verdict against him.

Citizens United or not, Professor Hasen casts doubt on the decision to charge Edwards in the first place. The US Justice Department, he suggests, has been using “novel” legal interpretations to open doors for criminal prosecutions of candidates, which have now grown to some 600 a year, on average.

In Edwards’s case, for example, prosecutors – including one who is running for Congress – rejected a tradition. In the past, the Justice Department wouldn’t file criminal charges in campaign-finance cases without a ruling from the Federal Election Commission. In this case, FEC commissioners could not with certainty state that Ms. Mellon’s gift constituted a campaign contribution.

“The broader takeaway is the danger of even well-meaning prosecutors who can ruin lives by being overly aggressive instead of focusing on clear cases of criminality,” says Hasen.

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