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Court Upholds State Limits on Campaign Donations

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By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2000; 1:07 PM

A divided Supreme Court today upheld state limits on individual contributions to election campaigns, in a decision laden with concern for quid pro quo politics and officials corrupted by big donors.

By a 6-3 vote, the justices endorsed a Missouri cap on donations to state candidates and rejected calls to reconsider the court's significant 1976 ruling that said government could restrict campaign donations without violating free speech rights. If the justices had backtracked on Buckley v. Valeo, ruling the opposite way, it would have widely threatened existing federal and state campaign finance rules.

Instead, today's decision provides a boost for advocates seeking more controls on political contributions. The decision also demonstrates as Congress may soon be grappling with proposals to rewrite campaign finance law that this court is not hostile to government attempts to control the vast influence of money in elections.

Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority, said that if appearances of impropriety were not answered, "the cynical assumption that large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance." He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Their opinion provoked scathing comments from dissenters, who said the court was undermining free speech protections, as well as adding to "covert speech" by contributors who bypass limits by resorting to "soft money" that indirectly finances candidates.

"The Court's decision has lasting consequences for political speech in the course of elections, the speech upon which democracy depends," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote, declaring the majority's legal reasoning weak and an affront to the First Amendment. "Surely the Court's approach is unacceptable for a case announcing a rule that suppresses one of our most essential and prevalent forms of political speech."

Also in dissent were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

At issue in the case was a 1994 Missouri law that allowed individuals and political committees to give no more than $1,075 to candidates for statewide office.

Zev David Fredman, a failed candidate for state auditor, and the Shrink Missouri Government PAC, which backed his campaign, had challenged the limit as unconstitutionally limiting their free speech rights. They argued that effective campaigns couldn't be mounted under such limits. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed, calling the limit a "heavy-handed restriction of protected speech."

Because federal government and numerous states have similar limits, the case was closely watched when it was argued last October.

Today, when the Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit, it emphasized the potentially corruptive role of money.

"Democracy works only if the people have faith in those who govern, and that faith is bound to be shattered when high officials and their appointees engage in activities which arouse suspicions of malfeasance and corruption," Souter wrote, referring to past court cases allowing limits.

He rejected arguments from Fredman and the Shrink Missouri PAC that a state that seeks to limit donations must demonstrate that there are real threats of harm and corruption, not offer mere conjecture.

Missouri officials had provided little in the way of legislative history to support the limits but relied heavily on an affidavit of a state senator who co-chaired a committee on campaign finance reform and declared that large contributions have "the real potential to buy votes."

Souter noted that the court has consistently held such restrictions on campaign contributions to a lower justification than restrictions on expenditures. So, he said, the state needed to show only that the regulation was furthering a "sufficiently important interest." He said Missouri had met that test to its concern for the prevention of real corruption and its appearance.

"[T]here is little reason to doubt that sometimes large contributions will work actual corruption of our political system," he said, "and no reason to question the existence of a corresponding suspicion among voters." He said there was no evidence that the Missouri limits were adversely affecting candidates' campaigns.

Kennedy's dissenting statement in the case of Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, declared that stance would cost the court's First Amendment approach and have practical consequences for the proliferation of so-called soft money.

"The court is concerned about voter suspicion of the role of money in politics. Amid an atmosphere of skepticism, however, it hardly inspires confidences for this court to abandon the rigors of our traditional First Amendment structure."

"The plain fact is that the compromise the court invented in Buckley set the stage for a new kind of speech to enter the political system. It is covert speech. The court has forced a substantial amount of political speech underground as contributors and candidates devise ever more elaborate methods of avoiding contribution limits, limits which take no account of rising campaign costs. . . . Soft money may be contributed to political parties in unlimited amounts, and is used often to fund so-called issue advocacy, advertisements that promote or attack a candidate's positions without specifically urging his or her election or defeat."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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