Campaign Reformers Push Cause in Court

Case pivots on constitutionality of spending caps

Sometimes it takes decades to overturn a US Supreme Court precedent.

But a group of campaign-finance proponents - including at least 11 state governments - say they are preparing to fight a long-term battle, if necessary, to overturn the court's landmark 1976 ruling that campaign spending is a protected form of free speech.

The case at issue, Buckley v. Valeo, is cited by many would-be reformers as the central stumbling block to the kind of comprehensive change that they say could dramatically reduce the amount and influence of special interest dollars in national elections.

The idea is that if election spending could be capped by law then candidates would no longer be able to rely on big money campaign donors.

The group, lead by officials from Iowa, Arizona, and Nevada, planned to file a friend of the court brief on today in a case pending before the federal appeals court in Cincinnati.

That court is considering whether the Ohio state Supreme Court can impose campaign-spending limits on judicial candidates in Ohio.

The case may eventually offer the US Supreme Court its first chance to revisit the campaign-spending limit issue since the Buckley decision 21 years ago.

"We think the court needs to take a new look at the Buckley case in light of what has happened in the last 20 years," says Tom Miller, Iowa's Attorney General and a leader in the state-based fight to overturn the Buckley decision.

Theirs may be an uphill battle. At present only two of the Supreme Court's nine justices appear to favor overturning the decision.

Examples of campaign money abuses have dominated the headlines this past election season, including reports of fund-raising sleepovers at the White House and alleged efforts by China to illegally funnel campaign contributions to American politicians.

Calls for new campaign finance laws are under consideration in Congress, including a proposal to pass an amendment to the Constitution to bypass the restraints on reform imposed by the Buckley and other more-recent Supreme Court decisions. A vote on a constitutional amendment is set for today in Congress, but the measure is not expected to pass.

A constitutional amendment is considered a long-shot because it requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and approval of three-fourths of the states.

Not everyone disagrees with the Supreme Court's view on campaign finance. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky is organizing his own coalition with the American Civil Liberties Union to counter any efforts to tamper with what they view as a First Amendment right of Americans to spend as much money as they like to get elected.

Senator McConnell says there is no place in the Constitution for restrictions that would in any way muzzle political speech. In an age of TV campaign advertising, such political speech can be expensive.

Reformers say the only First Amendment right being protected is the right of wealthy contributors and cash-rich candidates to outspend their political opponents.

They say US elections have degenerated away from being a contest of ideas and perspective toward a race to raise money and buy elections through expensive saturation television advertising.

By attacking the campaign-finance issue through the judicial process rather than the political process, the state-based reform group is hoping to eventually wear the high court down.

"The Buckley analysis is wrong and needs to be reconsidered in light of the skyrocketing costs of elections," says John Bonifaz of the National Voting Rights Institute, a Boston-based advocacy group.

Mr. Bonifaz says it took the court 58 years to recognize the error of its separate-but-equal ruling and overturn it in the famous case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. He adds that it took the court 30 years to overturn poll taxes.

"One would hope that today's justices can have a vision for the future and recognize that ultimately unlimited campaign expenditures will not survive the test of time," Bonifaz says. "Democracy is too fragile to allow private wealthy interests to forever control our elections."

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