High Court To Revisit Campaign Finance Law

By Robert Barnes and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to revisit the landmark 2002 legislation overhauling the nation's campaign finance laws, moving to settle the role of campaign spending by corporations, unions and special interest groups in time for the 2008 presidential primaries.

It would be the first time the court has reviewed the McCain-Feingold law of 2002 since justices ruled 5 to 4 three years ago that the act was constitutional. Since then, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was in the majority, has been replaced by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

At issue in the case is the question of whether so-called issue advocacy ads paid for by the general funds of special interest groups and broadcast in the period before a federal election may mention specific candidates. A three-judge panel in Washington last month overturned that prohibition, which is one of the key provisions of the law known formally as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

"The stakes are enormous," said Michael E. Toner, a Federal Election Commission member who served on President Bush's campaign in 2000. "We're watching this case very closely."

The specific rule against naming a candidate -- 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election -- is one of the bright lines in the act governing the role special interest groups may play in the election and, to its supporters, one of the act's virtues.

"One of the advantages of McCain-Feingold is that it's clear," said Trevor Potter, an adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the law's namesake, and president of the Campaign Legal Center.

If the justices uphold the lower-court ruling, Potter predicts additional disputes in the courts and at the FEC about when an independent group's commercial would be considered legitimate issue advocacy, and when it would be considered an attempt to influence the outcome of an election.

"You will have endless challenges to see where the line should be," he said.

But James Bopp Jr., the Indiana attorney and Republican National Committee member who brought the case on behalf of Wisconsin Right to Life, said the current prohibition cracks down on groups that are merely intending to influence lawmakers in the manner encouraged by the First Amendment.

The right to petition the government, Bopp said, should not be limited simply because it makes campaign finance laws too complicated.

"The court is perfectly capable of drawing a sensible and reasonable line between grass-roots lobbying and influencing an election," Bopp said.

The justices moved quickly to take the case, which they will hear in April, in time for a ruling by the end of the court's summer term. It will make for unusual political pairings.

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