Justices to review rule on campaign spending


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to reconsider the free-speech rule that allows candidates to spend unlimited money to win election to public office.

The campaign finance case is among 11 the justices agreed to take up after meeting behind closed doors Monday to go over more than 1,700 appeals that have awaited action since June.

They include an Ohio case that tests whether states can offer huge tax breaks to corporations to lure them to build plants. Last year, a U.S. appeals court said these special tax breaks are unconstitutional.

The campaign spending case from Vermont could change the look of American politics.

Nearly 30 years ago, the Supreme Court set a two-part rule for campaigns: The government may limit how much money donors give to candidates, but it may not limit how much the candidates spend.

Ever since, campaign reformers in Congress and across the country have focused on limiting contributions. For example, under the McCain-Feingold Act, individuals may give no more than $2,000 to a federal candidate in an election year.

But there are no limits on how much money the candidates may raise and spend. Recent decades have seen a steady increase in election spending as well as a profusion of wealthy candidates who can fund their own campaigns.

Billionaires including H. Ross Perot and publishing heir Steve Forbes could run for president because they had plenty of money, giving rise to charges that some candidates could "buy" political office.

Reformers have pressed for setting new limits for state and local campaigns. They argue that contribution limits have failed because candidates simply spend more time raising money from more donors.

Other states besides Vermont considered proposals during the 1990s, including ballot measures, that would set campaign spending limits, but critics said these limits would be struck down as free-speech violations under the Supreme Court's 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo. That ruling set the two-part rule that remains in law.

But last year, the U.S. court of appeals in Manhattan upheld Vermont's law as a reasonable reform. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union appealed the issue to the Supreme Court, arguing that "Vermont's mandatory limits on candidate expenditures violate the First Amendment."

The case, Randall v. Sorrell, will be heard early next year. The outcome might depend on who replaces Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has sided with the four liberal justices in the past to support limits on campaign donations.

If O'Connor were to remain on the court, Vermont's spending limits would stand a good chance of being upheld. But she will step down as soon as President Bush's next nominee is confirmed by the Senate.

The case involving corporate tax breaks is DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno. Ohio offered the German automaker tax breaks worth about $280 million for building a $1.2-billion Jeep assembly plant near Toledo. The practice has been common for decades as states compete to win big factories and jobs.

Several taxpayers and small business owners challenged it, and they won a surprising victory in the U.S. court of appeals in Cincinnati. Its judges said this "preferential" tax plan violated the Constitution's guarantee of free-flowing interstate commerce.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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