WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court was told yesterday that
Congress overstepped its bounds in passing legislation imposing
complicated new rules intended to clean up election campaign
The law “intrudes deeply into the political life of the nation”
and “in a word, goes too far,” said Kenneth Starr, the former
independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton, who
now is serving as an attorney for challengers to the law.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson said the law was a response to
a perception of corrupt politics – “the breakfasts, the lunches,
the receptions, the dinners … the relentless pursuit of big
Justices returned early from their summer break for the first
time in nearly three decades to hear arguments in the complex case,
the results of which will guide next year’s campaigns and those for
years to come.
In the first half of arguments yesterday, justices animatedly
queried attorneys who contend the law is an unconstitutional
infringement on free speech rights and government lawyers defending
Groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union and the
National Rifle Association are challenging the 2002 law, which bans
huge, unlimited donations to political parties known as “soft
money,” and tightens controls on political advertising in the weeks
before an election.
Starr, the first of eight attorneys who would argue before the
justices, said the law hamstrings local political parties, which
work with national parties, and hurts grass-roots political
Justice Antonin Scalia seemed skeptical of the law, which he
said was passed by incumbent lawmakers worried about protecting
themselves. “There will be abuses under this law,” he
Olson said Congress may not have fixed every potential abuse,
but spent six years coming up with the plan.
The case attracted unusual attention. Television cameras lined
the approach to the court yesterday morning and a line of
seat-seekers stretched down the plaza of the court building toward
the street. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold
(D-Wis.), principal authors of the law under challenge, took seats
side-by-side in the court.
The court must decide if Congress’ rewrite of campaign laws
squares with First Amendment free-speech protections.
A ruling could come before year’s end. While the court reviews
more than 1,000 pages of briefs in the case, campaigns go on under
the contested rules.
“The 2004 campaign is not waiting for the starting gun. People
are already halfway down the track,” said John Podesta, a
Democratic strategist who was chief of staff to President
If the court strikes down the entire law, which is unlikely, or
some parts, Congress can start working on another version to
control how money is raised and spent in future elections.