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First Monday, First Rejections

By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 1997; Page A07

The Supreme Court yesterday sidestepped one of the most contested points in American political campaigns today: how much government can regulate campaign advertising focused on abortion, gun control and other issues without violating free speech rights.

On the first day of the new term, as they rejected appeals in hundreds of cases, the justices turned away a Federal Election Commission request that the court review a rule governing ads that address the issues of the day but also could wind up advocating the election or defeat of particular candidates.

"Issue advocacy" by interest groups often targets members of Congress but stops short of specifically urging voters to elect or defeat the lawmakers named, and the myriad groups that engage in such advertising, from labor to business, have become a powerful force in politics by spending money to influence races while being free of election law disclosure requirements and limits on contributions.

In a varied day of Supreme Court business, the justices also rejected appeals by California and Arizona seeking billions of dollars from the U.S. government to cover costs of illegal immigration.

The high court also, without comment, spurned a constitutional challenge to the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. It was the third rejection in the past year of appeals by people who had been discharged because of their sexual orientation.

All told, the court rejected appeals in about 1,500 cases that had arrived during the summer recess. Last week, the justices announced 10 cases they had accepted for review from the pending appeals. Also yesterday, the justices heard arguments in a high-stakes battle between banks and credit unions over federal regulation permitting broad membership in the tax-exempt credit unions. [See related story, Page D3 in the Business section.]

The Maine Right to Life Committee challenged a 1995 FEC regulation governing issue ads that may subtly influence voters' views on specific candidates without specifically asking people to vote for a person. The Right to Life Committee said it wanted to ensure it could announce candidates' positions on abortion-rights issues without having to comply with FEC disclosure rules for communications that advocate the election or defeat of particular candidates.

The FEC rule says in part that any issue ad that could be interpreted "by a reasonable person" as advocating someone's election or defeat is covered by disclosure requirements and limits on campaign contributions. A district court found the wording too vague and said people should know exactly what words are covered, such as "vote for," "cast your ballot for" or "reject." The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.

In appealing the case to the Supreme Court, the FEC noted that conflicting rulings exist on the topic and said the lower court decision "threatens significantly to impair the effectiveness of the nation's election laws."

The one-sentence order denying the FEC's petition came without comment or dissent by any justice. The lower court ruling at issue applies only in the 1st U.S. Circuit, covering Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

An FEC spokesman emphasized yesterday that the court's action in Federal Election Commission v. Maine Right to Life does not invalidate the FEC's rule but said the commission will nonetheless be reviewing its policies in light of the court's refusal to clarify the law. Lawmakers trying to limit campaign spending also are struggling with how to handle the burgeoning issue of advocacy advertising.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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