Supreme Court says no to campaign finance review, yes to death row inmate appeal

By Robert Barnes
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 8:55 AM

The Supreme Court on Monday turned down the Republican National Committee's latest attempt to knock out long-standing campaign finance restrictions.

Without comment, the justices rejected a challenge from the RNC and former Louisiana congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao that sought to end federal restrictions on how much a political party can spend in direct coordination with a candidate. Cao lost a reelection bid in 2010.

The RNC said the restrictions violate the party's First Amendment rights, a claim that was turned aside by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

It was one of two challenges the GOP filed after the 2008 elections. The court did not accept either of them.

In June, the justices let stand a lower court's decision that upheld the constitutionality of the "soft-money ban" in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. That law bars national political parties from accepting or spending unregulated campaign cash.

In that case, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas said they would have accepted the case for review. But for a case to be heard, four justices must agree to take it.

There were no noted dissents from Monday's decision in the Cao case.

The court's decisions in campaign finance cases have been closely watched since its 5 to 4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission . The January 2010 decision granted corporations and unions a right to unlimited spending on elections and prompted a backlash among President Obama and his fellow Democrats.

Conservative legal groups nationwide have challenged campaign finance restrictions. Next week, the justices will hear a challenge to Arizona's public financing law, which gives additional grants to candidates who face free-spending opponents and hostile independent groups.

Those who favor campaign finance restrictions were pleased with Monday's decision, but they are still wary.

If successful, Cao's challenge "would have blown huge loopholes in the federal campaign finance laws and enabled large-scale circumvention of the individual contribution limits," said Tara Malloy, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center.

Still, she added, "there remains a lengthy list of challenges making their way through the courts hoping for a sympathetic audience from the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts."

Monday's case was Cao v. FEC .

Death row case

The court agreed to hear the case of an Alabama death row inmate whose appeal has been turned down by lower courts because of a paperwork mix-up.

Cory R. Maples was convicted in 1997 of killing two men after a night of heavy drinking and drug use. He filed appeals alleging that his inexperienced court-appointed attorneys - who during the trial warned the jury that it might appear they were "stumbling around in the dark" - were negligent.

At one point in the years of appeals that followed, Maples was represented by two lawyers from a New York firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. But the two left the firm without telling Maples or the court. And when the court sent notice of an unfavorable ruling, someone in the law firm's mailroom stamped the letters "Return to sender."

The letters went back to the county clerk, who did nothing with them. It was only after the 42-day deadline for appeal had passed that Maples received notice. The law firm tried to intervene, but the court said it was too late.

Maples also found no relief from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. Gregory G. Garre, who was solicitor general under President George W. Bush and is now representing Maples, brought the issue to the Supreme Court.

The case, he wrote, "raises the shocking prospect that a man may be executed without any federal court review of serious constitutional claims due to a series of events for which all agree he was blameless and notwithstanding the state's own failings in the purported default."

Garre noted in his petition that in 2006, the court held in Jones v. Flowers that, when the loss of a home was at stake, state officials had to take action when an important notice was returned unopened.

"It follows that the state may not 'shrug [its] shoulders . . . and say 'I tried' when a man's life is at stake," Garre wrote.

The case is Maples v. Thomas and will be argued in the court term that begins in October.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company