High court rebuffs FEC effort to limit business, labor spending Justices open term by rejecting 1,500 new appeals

October 07, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opted yesterday to stay out of Washington's heated debate over campaign finance, rebuffing a government effort to clamp down on corporation and union spending in presidential and congressional elections.

On the first day of its new term, the court issued an order without explanation, rejecting an appeal by the Federal Election Commission. The FEC sought to restrict campaign literature by business and labor that is intended to help candidates of their choice or to criticize those they oppose.

Last year, a federal appeals court nullified a 1995 FEC rule governing corporate and union spending on such literature. The lower court said the rule exceeded the FEC's power under campaign finance law. But a different appeals court had appeared to endorse the FEC's approach.

The Supreme Court refused to hear a test case involving the Maine Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group. The court's action won praise yesterday from the National Right to Life Committee, which said the justices had "protected the right of citizen groups to say what they want about politicians."

The nullified FEC rule, the national group said in a statement, closely resembles an element in the campaign finance reform bill being debated in the Senate.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he thought the legislation -- sponsored by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat -- was necessary because appeals courts have taken differing positions.

Federal law bars corporations or unions from spending their own money in favor of or against specific candidates for the White House or Congress. But the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that this ban could apply only when the company or union "expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate."

Since then, the FEC has tried to tighten the rule, seeking to stop corporations and unions from seeming to endorse or oppose candidates by using messages that do not specifically urge a vote on behalf of one candidate or against another but still leave the impression of their preferences.

The FEC argued that "express advocacy" is not confined to such messages as "Reagan/Bush" or "Clinton/Gore" but applies also to any reference that "suggests only one meaning" and that "reasonable persons" would agree meant a specific candidate.

The federal appeals court nullified the FEC rule after a challenge by the Maine Right to Life Committee, which puts out a newsletter containing surveys of candidates' positions on abortion. The FEC would treat the newsletter survey as advocacy for or against specific candidates.

In its unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court, the commission complained that the rejection of its rule reduces campaign law to "a futile vocabulary test," with corporate or union spending banned only when it pays for "a short list of magic words."

The Clinton administration supported the FEC rule.

The justices turned down the FEC appeal on the opening day, along with 1,500 new appeals that had accumulated over the court's summer recess.

These were some of the other results:

The court refused to consider extending to the college level its 1992 decision barring prayers at public school graduation ceremonies. A new case involved prayers at graduation exercises at Indiana University.

It cleared the way for Florida to set an execution date for Paul Jennings Hill, who was convicted and sentenced to death for fatally shooting a doctor and an escort outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Fla., in 1994. Hill opposed the appeal that was filed on his behalf, indicating that he is ready to die.

The justices left intact the cocaine possession conviction of Billy Howard Stanfield of Baltimore. Stanfield contended that a search of his car by Baltimore police, which turned up cocaine in the back seat, was illegal because police had opened the car door to look inside. The windows were tinted dark, preventing police from seeing inside.

The court allowed Glendale, Calif., to require every new city employee to take a drug test as a condition for beginning work. The city also wanted to test every employee who was up for promotion, but a lower court nullified that part of the policy.

As it has done twice before, the court refused to consider the constitutionality of the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans homosexuals from the military once they identify themselves as gay.

The court left intact a lower-court ruling that newspapers have a constitutional right to discipline journalists for taking part in politics or public advocacy of issues. The case involved a Tacoma, Wash., reporter who was transferred to an editing job after she engaged in public campaigns for gay rights and women's rights.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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