Supreme Court holds a political seminar Justices probe spending by political parties

April 16, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, usually more an arbiter of law than of politics, turned its attention yesterday to whether political parties' spending has a bad -- or good -- influence on election campaigns.

With a lawyer for the federal government arguing that money tends to corrupt politics, the justices probed the possibility that campaign spending by parties may be part of the problem -- especially in sponsoring negative advertising.

At issue, in a case from Colorado, is the constitutionality of a federal law that limits how much money a political party can spend on political messages during congressional election campaigns. But several justices parlayed that constitutional question into a seminar on the role of parties in the political process.

They reacted skeptically to the argument by the federal government's lawyer, Solicitor General Drew S. Days III, that unchecked spending by parties has "a significant corruptive potential" by unduly influencing the candidates.

Justice Antonin Scalia most sharply ridiculed that argument, saying party influence over candidates really was only "party discipline. I have never considered it corruption. I have considered it good old-fashioned democratic politics."

Justice David H. Souter seemed to agree with his colleague, questioning what justification there could be for the government to "destroy that relationship" between a party and the candidates it was backing.

The spending cap at issue has been upheld by a federal appeals court. It was challenged by the Colorado Republican federal campaign committee, which got into trouble in 1986 for running three radio ads critical of Tim Wirth, then a Democratic U.S. representative who was pondering a run for the Senate.

The committee's lawyer, Jan Witold Baran of Washington, argued yesterday that it is unconstitutional for the government to curb political messages of parties by curbing the money they spend on those messages.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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