Court affirms campaign-finance limits

It rules free speech isn't harmed when states restrict individuals'

In an important victory for proponents of campaign-finance overhaul, the US Supreme Court has reaffirmed that limits can be placed on the amount of money individuals contribute to political candidates.

The decision comes at the start of an election year that promises to be the most free-wheeling and expensive in US history. It ends speculation that the high court might do away with or undermine efforts to limit the amount of money involved in the election process on the grounds that such restrictions would curtail free speech.

In effect, it opens to the door for lawmakers to press further efforts aimed at campaign-finance reform.

Some free-speech advocates have argued that political contributors should be free to give as much as they wish under the First Amendment. Campaign-finance reform advocates have countered that money buys influence and undermines the quality of the democratic process.

In a 6-to-3 decision announced yesterday, the justices upheld a major portion of the Watergate-era system of campaign finance reform that is aimed at reducing the impact of special-interest dollars in US politics. The primary mechanism is by limiting the level of individual contributions to candidates.

In upholding such limits the court recognized that controlling the amount of money flowing from private individuals to candidates can be an effective means to deter corruption and prevent the appearance of corruption.

"There is little reason to doubt that sometimes large contributions will work actual corruption on our political system, and no reason to question the existence of a corresponding suspicion among voters," Justice David Souter wrote for the court.

The case before the court involved campaign-finance restrictions enacted by the State of Missouri that limited contributions to candidates for statewide office to $1,075. Roughly two-thirds of the states have similar restrictions.

"A lot of these laws are fairly new and were going to be in effect for the first time during the 2000 round of elections," says Brenda Wright, managing attorney at the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston. "So we are going to see if [this decision] has some impact on the role of money in politics, at least at the state level."

The Missouri law was challenged by a candidate who had the support of a few backers who were willing to make large contributions. He argued that his supporters had a free-speech right to spend their money to support the candidate of their choice. A federal appeals court agreed and declared the limits unconstitutional. The court's ruling reverses that decision and establishes a benchmark for state and federal lawmakers seeking to limit the influence of money in politics.

"The decision is extremely important because there are campaign-finance efforts going on throughout the nation, and many courts have been waiting for guidance from the Supreme Court before they decide challenges to their own laws," says Deborah Goldberg of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. "Hopefully the court's decision will provide additional guidance on some of these issues," she says. "But even if all it does is leave us exactly where we were before..., it means that citizens and legislators can act with confidence that this court will respect their decisionmaking process...."

The high court's ruling will not block future legal challenges to what some view as overzealous efforts to limit contributions. "Controversial limits are still subject to challenges under the First Amendment if the limits have the effect of preventing the ability of a candidate to mount an effective campaign," says James Bopp Jr., general counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech. "There have been seven cases where contribution limits have been struck down on that basis and there are challenges in four states currently."

The decision represents a shift from prior court precedent. "The court seems to have now said that corruption exists as a matter of law and doesn't have to be proved," he says. "I think the debate will now shift in the court from corruption to the effects of contribution limits on candidates speech."

Others say the decision offers insight into the difficult question of how to balance free-speech rights and the right to make campaign contributions. "The court is not blind to the reality of what these contributions buy," says Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "There are legitimate questions of corruption here."

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia dissented.

"The court's decision has lasting consequences for political speech in the course of elections, the speech upon which democracy depends," Kennedy said in a dissenting opinion.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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