Campaign gift limits reaffirmed

Court upholds power to curb donations

January 25, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court surprisingly reaffirmed yesterday sweeping power for the federal and state governments to curb donations to political candidates.

After a long trend of giving the political financing system greater freedom from regulation, the court did a considerable turnabout, revitalizing a 24-year-old decision that supports strict limits on contributions to candidates.

The justices, dividing 6-3, upheld a 1994 Missouri law that sets a limit of $1,075 on contributions to statewide candidates, slightly higher than the $1,000 limit that Congress imposed in 1976 for federal campaign donations.

The court indicated that there would probably be no constitutional problem if the figure was set lower. Such low ceilings, donors and candidates argue, do not keep pace with inflation and the rising costs of campaigning.

The high court made clear that Congress and state legislatures need not show evidence that money corrupts elections in order to exercise their power to reduce the influence of large donors.

Noting a broad threat of "politicians too compliant with the wishes of large contributors," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority: "The cynical assumption that large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance.

"The dangers of large, corrupt contributions and the suspicion that large contributions are corrupt are neither novel nor implausible."

The decision emboldened those who want to tighten public controls on political financing. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and a leader of the congressional bloc that has failed to pass federal legislation limiting donations, said in a statement that the court's ruling "has greatly advanced our efforts to reform our elections."

Republicans who have led the fight against new limits on campaign contributions have argued that such limits, if passed by Congress, would be struck down by the Supreme Court. The court's decision yesterday appears to seriously undercut that argument. Feingold suggested that the decision "put to rest any doubts about the constitutionality" of limits on campaign donations.

Cleta D. Mitchell, a Washington attorney and leading opponent of campaign finance restrictions, portrayed the Supreme Court ruling as narrow. The ruling, she said, was little more than a restatement of part of a 1976 decision upholding Congress' power to limit contributions to candidates. She noted that the justices said nothing about another part of that decision that struck down efforts to limit candidates' own spending.

But Mitchell expressed concern about how advocates of campaign finance limits would read the ruling. "The `reformers' are never finished reforming and regulating," she said.

Although the majority did not say so in specific words, the ruling appeared to clear the way constitutionally for legislatures to restrict "soft money" -- the unlimited, unregulated contributions to political parties that help their candidates, even though the money does not go directly into the candidates' campaign coffers.

Soft money is a leading source of campaign financing and is the chief target of those who want to reduce the effect of big donations on politics.

Yesterday's case, Nixon vs. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, had appeared to be a difficult test for the court on constitutional issues surrounding campaign finance. Yet the majority decided it with apparent ease and, in fact, treated the result as almost self-evident.

Missouri's Legislature, Souter wrote, had ample reason to believe that large contributions were having a corrupting influence on elected state officials, or at least giving voters the impression that money could corrupt. The court refused to require any minimum threshold of proof of corruption before campaign donations could be curbed.

In addition, the court seemed to relax its understanding of what could constitute corruption in politics. Previously, it had appeared to support limits on campaign donations primarily when politicians performed explicit favors in return for donations. That requirement of "quid pro quo" evidence was dropped yesterday.

The ruling exposed a deep split between the majority and the dissenters on the constitutionality of campaign finance limits. Justice Clarence Thomas, in a biting dissenting opinion, wrote: "The majority today, rather than going out of its way to protect political speech, goes out of its way to avoid protecting it."

Thomas argued that the majority had relied on a view of political corruption that did not amount to anything like corruption.

Thomas and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia argued that the Supreme Court should reconsider its 1976 ruling in the case of Buckley vs. Valeo, the court's most important constitutional ruling on campaign finance. Yet, the majority appeared to have strengthened that ruling's support of campaign finance curbs.

The three justices dissented, arguing that the Missouri campaign donation limits -- ranging from $250 to $1,075 per donor for statewide candidates -- violate the First Amendment because they severely restrict protected political expression by donors and the candidates they favor.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer supported Souter's majority opinion, but said he, too, would favor reconsidering the 1976 ruling if that decision came to be understood to deprive legislatures of wide authority to restrict campaign spending and contributions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg supported Breyer's separate opinion.

Joining the Souter majority, besides Breyer and Ginsburg, were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens.

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