Divided High Court Upholds Campaign Finance Reform Law
In dual 5-4 rulings, the justices upheld as constitutional provisions of the law that ban unregulated contributions, known as “soft money,” to political parties and that restrict some television and radio advertising, called “issue ads,” by corporations and unions in the weeks leading up to an election.
“In sum, there is substantial evidence to support Congress’ determination that large soft-money contributions to national political parties give rise to corruption and the appearance of corruption,” the court majority declared.
The soft money ruling bars candidates for federal office, including incumbent members of Congress or an incumbent president, from raising such donations.
“We are under no illusion that (the law) will be the last congressional statement on the matter. Money, like water, will always find an outlet. What problems will arise, and how Congress will respond, are concerns for another day,” Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority.
According to Federal Election Commission records, soft money raised by the national political party committees grew consistently over the past decade, from $86 million in 1992 to some $495 million in 2000 — making it a key fundraising venue and the source of a large part of political television advertising.
The justices struck down only two provisions of the complex legislation — a ban on political contributions from minors and a limitation on some party spending that is independent of a particular candidate.
Joining Stevens and O’Connor in the main majority opinion were Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented on most issues with Kennedy splitting his decision on the soft money ban. In all, the ruling produced eight separate opinions amounting to nearly 300 pages.
The dissenters voiced strong concerns about the court’s decision to allow the law’s restrictions on television and radio issue ads, which are often considered political attack ads between candidates or by groups airing commercials against a candidate, in the weeks leading up to election day.
“The chilling endpoint of the court’s reasoning is not difficult to foresee: Outright regulation of the press,” Thomas wrote in his dissent. “What is to stop a future Congress from determining that the press is ‘too influential,’ and that the ‘appearance of corruption’ is significant when the media organizations endorse candidates or run ‘slanted’ or ‘biased’ news stories in favor of candidates or parties?”
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Fiengold law after its chief sponsors Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was the first major overhaul of campaign finance regulation in 30 years. President Bush signed it into law in 2002.
The law’s passage sparked a flurry of challenges to its constitutionality, particularly on the grounds of free speech and free political association. The court consolidated some 12 different lawsuits in their review including those from the Republican Party, California Democratic Party, AFL-CIO labor federation, National Rifle Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Chamber of Commerce and the law’s chief opponent in the Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The court heard arguments on the myriad of legal challenges to the law in a rare September session and rushed to issue a judgement — presumably so that the candidates involved in the 2004 presidential and congressional election cycle would be clear on the law’s provisions.