TOPICS > Politics

Court Upholds Campaign Reform

December 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: In today’s eagerly awaited decision, the court essentially upheld Congress’ right to limit the influence of money in politics.

Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor said, “We are under no illusion that BCRA — the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — will be the last congressional statement on the matter. Money, like water, will always find an outlet.”

In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling “a sad day for freedom of speech,” writing, “who could have imagined the court would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: The right to criticize the government.”

For more on the court’s decision — all 300 pages of it — is Jan Crawford Greenburg, who covers the Supreme Court for the Chicago Tribune and has been doing a lot of reading today, Jan.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Here it is.

GWEN IFILL: Here it is: Three separate majority opinions on this. What did they say?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the main opinion, as you said, was written by Justices Stevens and O’Connor. And it addressed provisions in this massive law that were designed to close loopholes, loopholes that had allowed corporations, wealthy individuals, labor unions to contribute large donations to the nation’s political parties. The political parties were to use those donations for party building and to get the vote out. But instead, as the court found today and as supporters of the law have long argued, those large donations were being used to influence federal elections and were being used to circumvent previous federal election laws. McCain-Feingold, the law in the court today, said that those kinds of donations were illegal. The court agreed.

GWEN IFILL: The reason this ended up in the Supreme Court is because the people who challenged the law, Sen. Mitch McConnell among them, said that in fact free money equals free speech, which is money is speech and therefore shouldn’t be regulated in that way. Did the court just outright say that’s not true?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the court said that money and donations that can lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in the political process is certainly not protected speech. The court was persuaded today by arguments that supporters of the law have long pushed that they’re not restricting speech when they’re banning these kinds of donations. What they’re doing is trying to deter corruption or the appearance of corruption that could erode the way the public views the political process and the integrity of the political process, so to the supporters of the law, and the court in its decision today agreed, these restrictions are necessary to preserve the integrity of the process.

GWEN IFILL: The court also upheld a portion of the law which would allow — which would ban advertising too close to a campaign.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. And these involve the so-called issue ads, ads that you sometimes see very close to an election that don’t specifically mention a candidate by name but certainly identify him. The court’s ruling today among other things said that the law was perfectly fine and constitutional when it limited corporations and labor unions from taking money out of their general treasury funds to pay for these kinds of ads. They said that these groups have to use money out of their Political Action Committees. And they also upheld other restrictions on these kinds of advertisements.

GWEN IFILL: Jim said in the news summary that key parts of the law were upheld. Was there anything that was struck down?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Only two very minor provisions in the law including one that had limited contributions by juveniles. But those were very minor provisions and the ballgame, the restrictions on soft money really that was at issue, that was upheld in its entirety. This was a very sweeping ruling, a broad ruling, upholding this law that went much further than supporters, many supporters of the law had even dared hope. So it was a tremendous victory for supporters of the law.

GWEN IFILL: The justices wrote about the pernicious influence of big money campaigns. Do they think that by upholding this law that they have ended that?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No, they don’t. And they actually address that when they say that money, like water, is going to find another outlet. Now opponents of this law and opponents that I spoke with this afternoon say that money already has that outlet. Keep in mind that this law has been in place while the court was considering this decision and how it was going to rule. And so they note that people already have created committees and groups to start accepting these big-money donations that used to go to the political parties so they say this law has really had an adverse effect because it’s created these new organizations.

The court today acknowledged that money will find another outlet and it said that it has, you know, knows it hasn’t heard the last of this issue. What Congress does to address that certainly will come before the court in the future, the court acknowledged.

GWEN IFILL: Dissenting justices had some pretty tough words for this decision today.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. As you said, Justice Scalia called it a sad day for free speech. Justice Thomas said that the freedom of the press was going to be next on the chopping block because the press, he said, like the political parties and other organizations, would want to influence federal elections through its editorials.

The chief justice wrote a separate dissent expressing concern that this law infringed on the associational rights and the free speech rights of political parties and wealthier individuals and corporations. And Justice Kennedy also wrote a very strong dissent decrying the court’s ruling today. So all the justices that were in dissent made points that today’s ruling got to the heart of speech that our First Amendment was designed to protect, and that is the right to criticize the government. Justice Scalia particularly said that Congress, when it passed this campaign finance reform law, wasn’t really trying to protect the process. They were trying to protect themselves and that the law would enable incumbents to remain in office and stifle speech.

GWEN IFILL: Once again, Sandra Day O’Connor was the key — in the 5-4 decision she was the fifth.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right.

GWEN IFILL: I thought it was also interesting that she’s the only member of the court who is ever an elected official.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. Back in Arizona she was in the state Senate. So again, as you said, we see Justice O’Connor siding with the more liberal justices who were in the majority today in upholding this law, and that made the difference. Now, opponents say this is not necessarily a liberal decision. And they know that it could have some ironic results, that it may actually help — these new rules may actually help the Republicans since they’re in power and they say it will protect, help protect incumbents.

GWEN IFILL: Was there any drama in the courtroom when a big decision like this comes down?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Sure. We had some very interesting arguments this morning, including another Miranda case, a redistricting case. So everyone was expecting to have some very interesting arguments. The court took its seats on the bench and the Chief Justice Rehnquist said that he would announce, summarize the opinion in this campaign finance reform case. Of course everyone sits up. He goes into about an eight-minute summary of this extraordinarily complex case — this massive law. It becomes very clear very quickly that it was quite a victory for supporters of the law. And he went through it pretty quickly and then leaned back and said, “Now I have to pause for a breath.”

GWEN IFILL: He actually said that?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yeah.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, thanks for taking us inside the courtroom again. Thank you, Jan.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: You’re welcome.