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  • Supreme Court Special Report

  •   High Court Refuses Campaign Spending Case

    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 17, 1998; Page A02

    The Supreme Court yesterday refused to take up the controversial issue of campaign spending limits, quashing what proponents of campaign finance reform saw as their best hope in years of reducing the influence of money in politics.

    The justices turned down an appeal from Cincinnati involving an ordinance that capped the amount city council candidates could spend trying to get elected but that was struck down by a lower federal court as unconstitutional. The city's appeal was supported by 26 states and had galvanized those who say the exorbitant amounts of money spent nationwide undermine public trust in democracy.

    As the debate has raged about whether wealthy interests exert disproportionate influence over campaigns, many public interest groups and state attorneys general pointed to the Ohio case as the best vehicle for persuading the justices to allow new government regulation of election spending.

    Cincinnati and other officials had wanted the court to use the case to reverse the influential 1976 decision that equated spending money with free speech and said government limits on expenditures violated an individual's First Amendment right to free speech. That ruling in Buckley v. Valeo has been blamed for rising campaign costs and abuse, and yesterday's case was the first in 22 years to directly challenge the landmark decision.

    Cincinnati argued that the reality of late-1990s politics justifies governmental restrictions on campaign expenditures that may not have been foreseen when the high court last ruled on the matter in 1976.

    "[U]nlimited spending has seriously undermined public confidence in our electoral process and in our democratic institutions," Cincinnati officials told the justices. "It has presented an increased threat of actual corruption as large contributors dominate the financing of public election campaigns. It has placed enormous time pressures on officeholders running for reelection, interfering with their ability to carry out their governing duties."

    The states that joined Cincinnati in its appeal added separately that fund-raising today dominates the work of elected officials and that "television sound bites have replaced comprehensive discussions of issues."

    But the Supreme Court was unmoved. The justices rejected the appeal with no comment. Their action leaves in place a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit that relied on Buckley's bottom-line First Amendment principle:

    "A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression, by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration and the size of the audience reached."

    That 1976, 137-page ruling allowed government to set limits on how much individuals and political committees can contribute to candidates. But the court emphasized that putting limits on how much given candidates can spend to get themselves elected is part of political expression and therefore protected by the Constitution.

    "This is potentially a decades-long fight and we have to be prepared for the long haul," said John C. Bonifaz. He is director of the National Voting Rights Institute and represented Cincinnati in the case. "This was the first challenge to Buckley. It won't be the last."

    But Michael A. Carvin, who represented those challenging the Cincinnati spending cap, said the First Amendment simply does not permit restrictions on candidates' spending to get a political message across.

    "There was a lot of political capital invested in this case," Carvin said, "but I never thought there was a serious chance the court would change" its position on Buckley v. Valeo.

    Advocates of campaign finance reform have suggested that several members of the current court might be open to reconsidering the 1976 precedent. But the reality is that a majority of the justices in related election cases have appeared satisfied with Buckley.

    Yesterday's case of Cincinnati v. Kruse was initiated by John Kruse, a Republican who failed in two bids for a council seat. He argued that spending limits would only protect incumbents.

    The city's spending cap would have limited the amount a candidate could spend trying to get elected to three times a council member's salary, or $140,000, but it never took effect because of the litigation.

    Separately yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that union members may take disability claims to federal court even if their labor contract has language that might suggest such matters must be handled by arbitration.

    The case was brought by Ceasar Wright, a Charleston, S.C., longshoreman who had been injured on the job, won compensation from his employer for permanent disability and eventually tried to go back to work.

    When several companies realized Wright previously had settled a claim for permanent disability, they told his union that they would not give him a job. Wright eventually sued for discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the question that came to the high court was whether a worker covered by a collective bargaining agreement requiring arbitration must submit an ADA claim first to arbitration before going to federal court.

    The case had drawn intense interest from several employee rights groups and business organizations because it appeared to test whether a union could waive an individual employee's right to sue for discrimination.

    But yesterday, in Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corp., the court said the language in the labor contract was so broadly written that it was not clear whether the pact actually required the cases to be handled in arbitration.

    © 1998 The Washington Post Company

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