Testing time for campaign finance

Supreme Court hears a case today that may revamp the role of money in

The debate over campaign finance moves from state legislatures and the halls of Congress to the US Supreme Court today, where justices must determine how best to break a constitutional logjam over the role of money in politics.

At stake are two different perspectives on the same issue.

In one camp are campaign-finance reformers who consider money and campaign contributions to be a potentially corrupting influence on candidates and elections.

In the other camp are First Amendment freedom-of-speech advocates who view candidates raising large amounts of money as a healthy and essential part of the democratic process.

It will be the job of the justices to decide which of these two conflicting outlooks is most consistent with the Constitution.

The case, involving a Missouri law limiting campaign contributions, is among the most important to be argued this term. If five of the nine justices agree with a federal appeals court in St. Louis - which struck down the state's limit on campaign donations - the vast majority of campaign-contribution limits enacted in 35 states would be called into question. It could also jeopardize contribution limits that have applied to congressional and presidential elections for nearly a quarter-century.

Presidential price tag

That would set the stage for a proliferation of campaign fund-raising that would easily make the 2000 elections for Congress and the presidency the most expensive and freewheeling in US history.

On the other side, if a majority of the court overturns the appeals court, it could set an important precedent that those who contribute money to political campaigns enjoy a lower level of First Amendment freedom of speech than a candidate who uses that same money to directly spread a political message.

"This case is about whether the court will continue as it has in the past to protect the First Amendment right of citizens to contribute to candidates of their choice," says James Bopp, a Terre Haute, Ind., lawyer who is mounting legal challenges to campaign-finance restrictions around the country.

Reformers have a different view. "What is at stake is the ability of states to set reasonable regulations on the amount of money going to political officeholders from private interests," says Brenda Wright of the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston, an advocacy group that supports campaign-finance reform.

At issue in the Missouri case is whether the state's $1,075 limit on individual contributions violates the free-speech rights of would-be contributors and candidates.

When Zev David Fredman decided to run for the office of Missouri state auditor in 1998, he knew he faced an uphill battle.

As a first-time candidate, he did not have a broad network of political contacts or a ready-made base of contributors. But he did have a small number of supporters who were willing to make large contributions to fund his candidacy. The problem was that Missouri law barred all contributions larger than $1,075.

In effect, Mr. Fredman's ability to compete successfully in the election was hindered by the state's campaign-finance law.

Fredman and one of his supporters, a political-action committee called Shrink Missouri Government PAC, filed suit in federal court saying the law violated their First Amendment right to engage in politics, a fundamental form of free speech.

A federal judge threw out the case, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Fredman and the PAC, striking down Missouri's campaign-contribution limits as violating the Constitution.

The divided appeals court ruled that Missouri's campaign contribution limits were set too low. In addition, it ruled that because the state's contribution limits were adopted by lawmakers as a means to protect against corruption, the law must also be struck down in that the state was unable to present any evidence of corruption in Missouri involving large campaign contributions. Such evidence is necessary, the court said, to justify the infringement of free-speech rights of candidates and contributors.

The Supreme Court must now decide whether the Eighth Circuit applied the correct test from the 1976 landmark campaign-finance case, Buckley v. Valeo.

In that case, the Supreme Court wasn't entirely clear about the standard of proof necessary to justify limiting campaign contributions.

Reformers argue that the court should adopt a common-sense approach in which public concern about the possible appearance of corruption from candidates accepting large campaign contributions should be enough to justify limits.

First Amendment advocates counter that the Constitution requires actual proof of corruption or actual proof that contributions in excess of the limits would create an appearance of corruption. They argue that no such evidence was presented in the Missouri case and, thus, the law must be struck down.

"The essence of this case is that if the state wants to limit your freedom, it has to prove that it is necessary," says Mr. Bopp.

History as a yardstick

The Supreme Court in its 1976 precedent relied on common sense and an understanding of history, says Deborah Goldberg of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The 1976 court, with a fresh memory of Nixon administration campaign-finance abuses, determined that the potential for corruption resulting from large campaign contributions was self-evident and that no further evidence was needed, she says.

Ms. Goldberg says the Eighth Circuit's reliance on proof of actual corruption, if embraced by the Supreme Court, would create a new constitutional standard that would make it extremely difficult for legislators to satisfy when attempting to enact campaign-finance laws.

A decision in the case is expected by next summer.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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