Campaign Finance Law Faces Supreme Court Scrutiny
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GWEN IFILL: That action included a challenge to a Vermont law, which sharply limits how much candidates for state office are allowed to raise and spend on their campaigns and the latest decision on antiabortion protests.
For more on those, as other matters before the court today, we turn to Marcia Coyle. She covers the Supreme Court for the National Law Journal.
Marcia, on the abortion decision, it was a rare unanimous decision. What did the court find to agree on?
MARCIA COYLE: Well, it was probably unanimous because it wasn’t at its core an abortion decision. The court was taking a look at a case that is actually about 20 years old now in which the National Organization for Women, several health clinics that provide abortion services had sued Operation Rescue and Joseph Scheidler in reaction to increasing violence 20 years ago at abortion clinics. Scheidler and Operation Rescue were leaders in the antiabortion protests at those clinics.
NOW and the clinics relied on two federal laws as they sought damages and a nationwide injunction against Operation Rescue and Scheidler. They relied on the federal Hobbs Act, which prohibits obstructing commerce through the use of robbery, extortion, and acts of violence related to the extortion, and also the federal RICO law, which we are familiar with because it’s been used primarily to go after the mafia. It was a very novel use of those two laws 20 years ago.
NOW actually won damages and the injunction in the trial court but over the last 20 years, the case has gone up and down the Supreme Court to the Supreme Court and back down to the lower courts on issues related to the interpretation and scope of the Hobbs Act and the federal RICO law.
GWEN IFILL: But most recently the court had rejected this whole approach just in 2003.
MARCIA COYLE: It did. It actually looked at a question as to whether there was a question of whether there was extortion involved in this – in these acts of violence. Extortion in the traditional sense it taking somebody’s property and the court said there was no extortion. It went back to the lower courts and the lower courts, thought, well, the court didn’t really answer the question whether the Hobbs Act will prohibit freestanding physical acts of violence.
That’s the question that got back up to the Supreme Court. It’s the question NOW and the clinics needed to have a “yes” to in order to keep the case alive but the Supreme Court today said, no, that the acts of violence have to be tied to extortion. It was a very straightforward reading of the statute by the court. Justice Breyer wrote the opinion. He said to read it more broadly would make federal crimes out of simple assault, murder, crimes, criminal activity that traditionally is prosecuted at the state level.
And he also noted that if the Hobbs Act was meant to cover this kind of violence, Congress probably would not have enacted the FACE Act which is the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which was designed specifically to attack violence at abortion clinics. The court ordered judgment for the protesters.
GWEN IFILL: Another case which was argued today, not decided before the court, involves campaign finance law and the tiny state of Vermont.
MARCIA COYLE: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: How did this end up before the court? They were placing limits on what people can raise and spend?
MARCIA COYLE: Yes. This is a big election law term for the court. The court’s already had one decision involving issue advertising by interest groups under the new federal bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Tomorrow we’re going to hear arguments in a case involving how legislatures draw district lines for the election of members of the U.S. House. And today was all about financing of elections. Vermont in 1997 enacted some of the strictest, and by strictest I mean lowest limits on what can be contributed to state candidates and what state candidates can spend.
GWEN IFILL: We’re talking about a couple hundred bucks limits we’re talking –
MARCIA COYLE: Right. In terms of contributions the range is 200 to 400 dollars per election cycle from one contributor. In terms of spending, the candidate for governor in Vermont can spend a maximum of $300,000 down to $2500 for a seat in the Vermont state house. This is really low compared to what’s happening in the rest of the country.
GWEN IFILL: Did the justices during the argument today seem to have any sympathy for the Vermont law?
MARCIA COYLE: I think there are a few on the court who do feel that limits on spending in particular could be constitutional. But I’d say that there seems to be a majority of justices who are not sympathetic for a couple of reasons. James Bopp argued on behalf of the challengers to the Vermont law and he said that the limits on spending are really a direct and unprecedented restraint on candidates’ speech and they run smack up against the decision, a landmark decision 30 years ago.
GWEN IFILL: Buckley versus Valeo.
MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely — in which the court divided contributions and expenditures. It said limits on contributions were okay but on expenditures not okay because that’s really speech that’s at the core of First Amendment protection.
And he also argued that Vermont just couldn’t justify the limits being so low, they actually prevented the effective running of campaigns in Vermont.
GWEN IFILL: Vermont was arguing — the lawyers for Vermont — that corruption is a major problem for them.
MARCIA COYLE: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Even though one doesn’t think of Vermont as a place where corruption is a major problem.
MARCIA COYLE: Right. In fact Chief Justice John Roberts said he thought you’d think just the opposite. But the attorney general of Vermont, William Sorrell, he argued that the legislature held 65 hearings before enacting these limits, had a clear record of the problem in Vermont. Corruption, he said, is a problem. We haven’t sent any governors to jail, he said, but in the trial in this case, as well as the hearings, witnesses came forward and said that there is buying of influence – buying of lawmakers, you know, unprecedented influence; and he argued that Vermont had a compelling interest in these limits. It had an interest in the –prohibiting the appearance of corruption and the actual corruption as well as lawmakers are so caught up in the arm’s race as he put it for money, that they’re spending more time raising money than they are on their actual duties. And he asked the court to look at Vermont’s own situation. You don’t need a lot of money to win a race in Vermont.
GWEN IFILL: Finally. And this was what got all the attention today at the court, a little Hollywood action in the chambers today involving Anna Nicole Smith. I guess you could call her an actress who was — somehow brought a probate case, what seemed to be a simple probate case, all the way to the Supreme Court. How did that happen?
MARCIA COYLE: Well it’s a very complicated technical case but basically she was in federal bankruptcy court and won a judgment there for a large amount of money. At the same time, there was a battle between Anna Nicole Smith and the son of her late husband in state probate court, which is all about determining the validity of wills and trusts. Her bankruptcy case, she wants to be in federal court because she won there. She lost in the probate court.
The question before the Supreme Court is very narrow. It’s whether federal courts can review matters related to state probating of wills.
GWEN IFILL: Was it different at all in the courtroom with all of that attention?
MARCIA COYLE: No, I don’t think so. I think it was different outside the courtroom. There was such a horde of cameras and television crews that they were falling all over themselves trying to get pictures. She was very subdued in the courtroom; sat in the public section and then left quickly after the argument was over. But I will say, I think the justices were quite sympathetic to the legal arguments that she was making.
GWEN IFILL: Well good for her and good for us that everything was so subdued. Marcia Coyle, thank you so much.
MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.