Supreme Court rejects assaults on its campaign finance rulings Cincinnati, Ark. cases intended as opportunity to revisit 1976 decision

November 17, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Frustrating a carefully planned effort to get constitutional clearance for ceilings on campaign spending, the Supreme Court refused yesterday to reconsider its view that money spent on politics is a form of speech fully protected by the First Amendment.

Without comment, the court turned down a case from Cincinnati that campaign finance reformers pushed through the courts as a full-scale attack on a 1976 Supreme Court ruling declaring that it is unconstitutional to place "a ceiling on expenditures for political expression."

"We will keep coming back again and again, until the courts recognize that they are wrong," vowed Derek Cressman, campaign director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which is seeking limits on campaign spending. "By declaring that money is speech, the Supreme Court is ensuring that speech is no longer free. Wealthy interests will continue to have much more influence."

But David H. Thompson, a Washington lawyer for Cincinnati campaign donors and a high-spending city council candidate, commented: "We have no reason to think that the court is interested in revisiting this issue." In fact, he said, the court in more recent decisions "seems to have been extending" constitutional protection for campaign financing.

In a second order, the court also refused to take a fresh look at the other side of campaign finance reform -- curbs on contributions to candidates or causes. In the same 1976 ruling striking down spending caps, the case of Buckley vs. Valeo, the court said that the First Amendment does allow some curbs on campaign donations, but not such tight restrictions that contributors would be stifled.

The second case, from Arkansas, involved an attempt to get the court to allow states to clamp down harder on contributions, especially when they permit candidates to be subsidized by a state tax credit for up to $50 in campaign donations.

In declining to hear both cases, the court issued no formal decisions. But the apparently unanimous action gave the clear impression that the court is not ready to reopen the constitutional issues surrounding money in politics.

Overhaul advocates had thought that, in the 22 years since the Buckley decision, the steep increases in the costs of campaigning and the resulting emphasis on larger donations to cover bigger budgets would help lead the court to reconsider.

The Cincinnati ordinance, in fact, was passed in 1995 with a specific aim of setting up a test of the Buckley ruling against spending ceilings. The ordinance set a maximum of about $140,000 on spending by any candidate for the city council.

The ordinance's backers did not expect to win in lower courts, and they did not, because the ordinance was written in a way that could not be upheld unless the Buckley decision were changed,something only the Supreme Court can do. The vTC Supreme Court was the backers' clear target.

The ordinance was challenged by John R. Kruse, a candidate who earlier had spent more than the ceiling in an unsuccessful bid for the council. Two campaign contributors joined in the case. Along the way, about 24 states jumped into the test case, supporting a relaxation of the court's Buckley decision.

After a federal appeals court struck down the Cincinnati spending cap, and the city took the case to the Supreme Court, 19 Democratic senators urged the Clinton administration to join in urging the court to hear the case.

The administration refused, without giving the senators any reasons.

A group of 34 states -- Maryland was not among them -- did ask the court to hear the case.

The spending ceiling advocates were heartened last August when one of the justices, Anthony M. Kennedy, told newspaper editors in California that the Buckley decision was "a case that ought to be looked at again in light of our experience."

Yesterday, however, there was no sign that he or any other justice had voted to hear either the Cincinnati case or the one from Arkansas.

The votes of four justices are required for review.

Backers of the Cincinnati spending curb stressed that the court "is going to have other opportunities," as attorney John C. Bonifaz of Boston said. He is a lawyer with the National Voting Rights Institution in Boston, a group set up to challenge the Buckley ruling.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and one of the 19 senators supporting Cincinnati, said that other cases will reach the court from Ohio, New Mexico and Vermont, and that more tests are in the offing as more states pass campaign finance restrictions.

Reps. Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, who were the main sponsors of a campaign finance measure in the House this year, vowed to try again to pass new limits and argued that the court's action yesterday "does not affect what we can or want to do."

The Arkansas restrictions that were at issue in the second case the court turned aside yesterday would have set a $300 limit on campaign contributions to candidates for statewide offices, and $100 on contributions to other state candidates. It allowed campaign committees not tied to a candidate to spend any amount they wished, but barred them from accepting any more than $500 from any one person each year.

The law also set up an indirect campaign subsidy, allowing taxpayers to take an annual $50 state income tax credit for political contributions.

A federal appeals court struck down the contributions ceilings, saying the limits were too restrictive to survive under the Supreme Court's Buckley decision.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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