- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

The Supreme Court yesterday gave states a green light to curb campaign contributions in nonfederal elections so long as the caps don't muzzle candidates.
"Leave the perception of impropriety unanswered, and the cynical assumption that large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance," said the 6-3 decision written by Justice David H. Souter, who said dollar limits need not "be pegged" to federal law.
Because opponents failed to prove that the messages of candidates were stifled, the court upheld Missouri contribution limits ranging from $1,075 for top state posts down to $275. The justices did not address speech rights of donors as advocates had hoped.
The decision upheld the right of states to levy restrictions based solely on suspicion that "corruption or the perception of corruption" flows from unlimited donations to candidates.
The opinion also signed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dismissed dissenters' objections that the practice used by two-thirds of the states suppresses "essential and prevalent" political speech.
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas suggested going all the way and overturning the 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision that allows the federal government to put $1,000 limits on individual donations to each candidate for a primary and general election.
"Surely, the court's approach is unacceptable for a case announcing a rule that suppresses one of our most essential and prevalent forms of political speech," Justice Kennedy wrote.
"The decision of individuals to speak through contributions rather than through independent expenditures is entirely reasonable. Political campaigns are largely candidate-focused and candidate-driven," said a separate dissent signed by Justices Thomas and Scalia. They said the limits relegate donors to less effective means of communicating views.
"We recognized a concern not confined to bribery of public officials, but extending to the broader threat from politicians too compliant with the wishes of large contributors," Justice Souter responded.
"Democracy works only if the people have faith in those who govern, and that faith is bound to be shattered when high officials and their appointees engage in activities which arouse suspicions of malfeasance and corruption," he wrote.
The Justice Department expects yesterday's decision that campaign finance limits are not unconstitutional to lead the high court next week to reject a separate appeal by Simon C. Fireman, 73, a Boston industrialist. He was sentenced in July 1996 to a year's probation and $6 million in fines for him and his company, Aqua-Leisure, for arranging $120,000 in campaign gifts, much of which went to the 1996 Bob Dole presidential campaign.
The ruling demolished the hopes of many who expected the court would use the case to strike down dollar limits on contributions to all state and federal candidates. Members of Congress and swarms of interest groups had filed arguments on both sides of that question.
"The ruling dispenses with the erroneous notion, once and for all, that limiting campaign contributions violates the First Amendment. It is nothing less than a major victory for our democracy," said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who signed a brief supporting the Missouri law.
President Clinton, whose administration supported Missouri's law, called the ruling "a victory for democracy" and said the "decision sets the stage for further reform."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has made campaign finance reform a cornerstone of his Republican presidential campaign, called the ruling "marvelous."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, the most outspoken congressional critic of the federal $1,000 limit, found solace in the court's assurance it would strike down limits that "impede communication of a candidate's message."
"Ultimately, the court issued a narrow decision that explicitly refused to address issues beyond the Missouri candidate limits," said Mr. McConnell, whose own state limits also are under court attack.
The high court said the fact that 98 percent of Missouri donors gave less than the limit indicated little pressure that donors feel stifled, a point supported by many of the 43 states, including Maryland, that filed briefs backing Missouri.
"This is the first case that's ever pointed to the number of contributors at a specific level as being pertinent," said James Bopp Jr., an Indiana lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief for interests as diverse as the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life Political Action Committee. He has clients in nine of 11 campaign-funding cases.
"These courts have been finding the contribution limits adversely affect the candidates' ability to get out their message, which is unconstitutional," Mr. Bopp said.
E. Joshua Rosenkranz of the Brennan Center for Justice, which filed a brief in the case advocating campaign finance reform, called the ruling "a grand slam home run reformers have been waiting for."
In other action yesterday, the justices:
* Limited federal authority under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to turn down plans that change the way state and local elections are run. They ruled 5-4 in a Louisiana case that the Justice Department cannot reject changes in voting practices, even if they are discriminatory, so long as they leave minorities no worse off.
* Changed their mind and dismissed an appeal scheduled for argument Feb. 28 on the constitutionality of Florida's electric chair. They said a new state law giving condemned prisoners the choice of injection or electrocution rendered moot claims that carrying out death sentences in "Old Sparky" violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

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