The Supreme Court added an important campaign finance case to its docket for the coming term, a test of the constitutionality of mandatory state campaign spending limits.

The case stems from a Vermont law imposing such limits, as well as strict contribution limits, in the interest of preventing the appearance or reality of corruption and of limiting the amount of time candidates for state office must spend raising money.

Challengers of the law contend that it runs afoul of the leading Supreme Court case on campaign finance, the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which said mandatory limits set by Congress, as opposed to voluntary ceilings accepted by candidates taking federal funds, violated the right to free speech of political candidates.

Proponents of strict campaign finance regulation have been attempting for some years, without success, to get the Buckley ruling loosened to permit more stringent campaign finance regulation.

They made significant headway in the Vermont case when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit held in 2002 that the Vermont law was not barred by Buckley because the Vermont legislature's stated interests for it were compelling.

The appeals court interpreted Buckley to permit mandatory "spending limits that are narrowly tailored to secure clearly identified and appropriately documented governmental interests."

"The Buckley Court's rejection of particular federal campaign expenditure limits," said a three-judge appeals court panel with one dissenting vote, was "rooted in Congress' purported reasons for such legislation and the failures of those interests to demonstrate any need for expenditure limits."

It "did not conclude that the Constitution would always prohibit expenditure limits, regardless of the reasons asserted and the record supporting the limitations."

The Supreme Court "has consistently regarded mandatory campaign expenditure limits as unconstitutional restraints on free speech," said the petition granted today. The petition was filed by the Vermont Republican State Committee, among other parties.

The Vermont law, passed in 1997, imposed a $300,000 spending limit on gubernatorial candidates and restricted state senate and county candidates to $4,000 per election cycle. Vermont's law has been tied up in court and has never fully gone into effect. Gov. James Douglas spent nearly $682,000 to get reelected last year, and other candidates spent well over the law's caps.

The court agreed to review three related cases involving the appeals court holding. The main questions are presented in Randall et al v. Sorrell et al and Vermont Republican State Committee v. Sorrell.

Numerous friend-of-court briefs have been filed in these cases, including one from a group of state judges concerned about the amount of spending nationwide in judicial elections.

In addition to the Vermont case, the court said it would hear an appeal from a Wisconsin anti-abortion group over political advertising restrictions in a 2002 campaign finance law. The high court upheld the law in 2003, but Wisconsin Right to Life brought a new challenge claiming that restrictions violated its free-speech rights. The case is Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission.

In other action reported by the Associated Press today, the Supreme Court:

--Agreed to decide how states may use tax incentives to lure companies to build car plants and other projects. DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 04-1704 and Wilkins v. Cuno, 04-1724.

--Said it would consider former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith's appeal over the fortune of her 90-year-old late husband. Vickie Lynn Marshall v. E. Pierce Marshall, 04-1544.

--Announced that it would use an appeal from Merrill Lynch to clarify when companies can face state law class action suits based on claims the companies misled investors. Merrill Lynch v. Dabit, 04-1371.

--Said it would decide how much effort governments must take before seizing someone's property for unpaid taxes. Jones v. Flowers, 04-1477.

--Agreed to consider how much of a person's lawsuit winnings can be taken by the government to cover health expenses paid for through Medicaid. Arkansas Department of Health v. Ahlborn, 04-1506.

--Said it would use the case of South Carolina death row inmate Bobby Lee Holmes to consider the constitutionality of state evidence rules. Holmes v. South Carolina, 04-1327.

--Agreed to use the case of a Florida man convicted of second degree murder to clarify time limits for state inmates to file federal appeals. Day v. Crosby, 04-1324.

--Said it would review two police search cases from California involving claims of unconstitutional searches. United States v. Grubbs, 04-1414, and Samson v. California, 04-9728.