WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court upheld a key provision of campaign finance law yesterday, ruling that limits on the amount of money political parties may spend in coordination with their candidates do not violate the First Amendment.
The ruling could provide new momentum for congressional efforts to overhaul the nation's campaign finance laws.
In a 5-4 decision, the court said that restrictions on the money the parties spend in concert with candidates are necessary to enforce other provisions of campaign finance law, specifically the limits on how much an individual or group can contribute to a candidate.
If parties were allowed to share unlimited amounts of money with their candidates, the court said, big donors could circumvent the contribution limits by funneling money through the parties with the understanding that it would end up in the pockets of particular candidates.
"Substantial evidence demonstrates how candidates, donors and parties test the limits of the current law," wrote Justice David H. Souter in an opinion for the majority. "And it shows beyond serious doubt how contribution limits would be eroded if inducement to circumvent them were enhanced by declaring parties' coordinated spending wide open."
The court's decision could have a significant impact on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill pending before Congress. That legislation, which has been approved by the Senate and will be taken up soon by the House, would limit radio and television ads that purport to address only issues but that usually promote a candidate as well.
The legislation also would eliminate soft money, the unlimited and unregulated contributions to parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.
The court's ruling did not directly address either provision, and legal experts said it has little bearing on the regulation of issue ads. But it could boost efforts to ban soft money because it demonstrates that the court is sensitive to the way in which money given for one purpose is often redirected for other uses.
The ruling also shows that the court is not willing to give special treatment to political parties, something for which opponents of the soft money ban had argued.
"Clearly, this decision demonstrates that McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign contributions are constitutional," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and one of the sponsors of the legislation, said in a statement. "Our opponents will have to find some other excuse not to enact laws that restore Americans' confidence in our political system."
Other observers were more cautious. Richard Briffault, a law professor at Columbia University, said the decision was important mainly for what it did not do. Had the justices struck down the limits on coordinated spending, he said, "it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do anything on soft money." But, he added, the court's ruling yesterday did not ensure that a ban on soft money would be upheld.
Yesterday's decision stemmed from a 1986 U.S. Senate race in Colorado in which the state Republican Party paid for radio ads attacking the Democratic candidate, Tim Wirth. The Federal Election Commission charged the party with exceeding the limit on coordinated expenditures and sought to impose a $5,000 fine.
The party defended the action by claiming that the ads were not coordinated with the Republican candidate and, even if they were, the limit on coordinated expenditures was unconstitutional. In a 1996 ruling, the Supreme Court accepted the party's first argument but it declined to address the constitutionality of the spending limits.
The case was sent back to a lower court, which agreed with the party that the limits were unconstitutional. A federal appeals court affirmed that decision, and the government appealed to the Supreme Court.
Souter began his opinion yesterday by laying out the framework the court established 25 years ago, in the landmark case of Buckley vs. Valeo, for evaluating restrictions on campaign spending. Under that framework, the court has upheld limits on campaign contributions - the money given directly to a candidate - but has struck down restrictions on independent expenditures - money not given to the candidate, but spent on his or her behalf.
Coordinated spending between a party and a candidate, Souter explained, is more like a contribution than an independent expenditure. Therefore, he said, it can be regulated to further the government's interest in combating political corruption.
He concluded that the limits on coordinated spending would prevent donors from circumventing other provisions of campaign finance law that are designed to stop corruption. His opinion was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas took issue with the entire framework established by Buckley vs. Valeo. He said he would vote to overrule that decision and strike down all regulations of campaign spending.
Although Thomas has expressed this view before, yesterday was the first time he has had company. Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy joined his opinion, meaning that there are now three votes on the court to overrule Buckley.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist joined the rest of Thomas' opinion but did not sign on to his denunciation of Buckley.