The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to consider restrictions on the growth industry of presidential campaign financing: the "independent expenditures" of dozens of committees formally unaffiliated with official presidential campaign organizations.
At issue is a $1,000 limit on spending in the general election by each committee. This was struck down by a lower court last summer in two cases involving pro-Reagan spending. A three-judge panel in Washington said the limit, like others struck down before it, unconstitutionally inhibited free political expression.
As a result, some individual committees supporting Ronald Reagan spent as much as $1 million in private funds in what was billed as a publicly financed election. The committees combined spent an estimated $9 million in this manner. The ruling, the government argued, in effect "undermined the goals of public financing" of presidential campaigns.
The court decided yesterday to review the three-judge panel's holding and its decision could have a major impact on the 1984 campaign.
The controversy is the same one that has produced all the major challenges to the post-Watergate campaign finance laws: whether restrictions on the giving and spending of campaign money conflict with First Amendment free speech protections.
Public financing was set up as a way of avoiding Watergate-style scandals revolving around massive private campaign contributions.Under the financing law, candidates who receive the federal funds may not also spend significant amounts of private money for their campaign.
But separate committees may collect private contributions and spend in support of a candidate so long as they are not connected with the official campaign organization.
When a group of these committees -- the Fund for a Conservative Majority, Americans for Change and Americans for an Effective Presidency -- announced plans to raise and spend millions of dollars in support of Ronald Reagan, Common Cause and the Federal Election Commission challenged them, contending, among other things, that the $1,000 limit blocked this spending.
Citing the Supreme Court's last major election law holding that restrictions on individual spending infringed on free political expression, the panel invalidated the $1,000 limit.
Common Cause and the government, in separate suits, asked the justices to reverse the lower court, arguing that the limit restricted not individuals, protected in the earlier decision, but political committees and that individuals acting on their own could still spend as much as they pleased. t
The justices also agreed yesterday to review another election law issue, the $250 ceiling on individual contributions to committees campaigning for or against referenda on election ballots in Berkeley, Calif.
In other actions yesterday:
The justices stepped into a major church-state controversy by deciding to review a University of Missouri ban on religious activity in campus buildings. Twelve students at university's Kansas City campus sued after their Christian organization was denied use of the student center for prayer, scripture reading, hymn singing, Bible commentary and worship.
Through nobody else was compelled to participate in the meeting or be present, the university said allowing it in a publicly financed building would violate the constitutional prohibition against state establishment of religion. vThe religious organization contended that it was merely exercising its right to practice its faith and that use of the building in no way entailed university "sponsorship," clearly forbidden in the past by the Supreme Court. u
The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the students, and struck down the ban. That ruling was hailed by religious organizations throughout the country, which have been battling similar bans on other campuses. The justices will consider the university's challenge (Widmar vs. Vincent) to the lower court.
The court fell one vote short of reviewing a long struggle by the all-white Prince Edward, Va., School Foundation to retrieve its tax-exempt status, revoked when it refused to publicize a nondiscriminatory admissions policy through advertising.
The issue of the use of tax exemptions to enforce nondiscrimination in private schools has been a major conservative cause over the last few years. Many private schools opened as refuges for parents and children unwilling to use public schools following busing orders. While the government could not force busing on these institutions, it could and did threaten the tax exemptions of those that refused to follow federal antidiscrimination regulations.
Justice William Rehnquist with Justices Potter Stewart and Lewis Powell dissented yesterday from the court's refusal of the Prince Edward School appeal, saying that they were not sure the Internal Revenue Service has the power to use the tax-exemption status as it has.
The school contends no black has applied and that it does not discriminate. But it also openly teaches a belief that racial segregation is desirable, according to court records.