- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 28, 2010

In the first court hearing since the Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance regulations, a federal appeals court appeared poised Wednesday to strike down more legal limits on money in politics.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, judging from questions and comments from the bench, gave every indication it would make it easier for independent advocacy groups to raise money for use in campaigns for president and Congress.

Nonprofit groups on the left and right have brought lawsuits against limits on the amount of money they can collect from donors for political ads and other campaign spending.

Several judges said the outcome was dictated by the reasoning in the high court’s decision last week freeing corporations, unions and interest groups to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates in federal elections.

The first words out of Chief Judge David Sentelle’s mouth set the tone for the hourlong hearing.

“What can you add to what Justice Kennedy said?” Judge Sentelle said, referring to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The entire appeals court heard the appeal of FreeSpeech.org, a creation of the leader of the anti-tax group Club for Growth. Emily’s List, a liberal nonprofit organization that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, also has challenged the rules and won a ruling from a smaller, three-judge panel of the appeals court.

In another sign of the fallout from the Supreme Court ruling, a conservative legal foundation on Wednesday asked FEC officials to give a green light to corporations and unions to begin spending immediately to influence this year’s congressional elections.

The James Madison Center for Free Speech wants the FEC to formally throw out its rules that restrict corporate and union spending on politics, saying the step is needed to clear up any legal uncertainties in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

“This is an election year,” said James Bopp, the center’s attorney. “Speakers will want to exercise the First Amendment rights to political speech … so the FEC should adopt these regulations quickly.”

Without a formal declaration by the FEC, Mr. Bopp said, advocacy groups will be hesitant to take full advantage of the new leeway the Supreme Court ruling, fearing they might be subject to enforcement action.

The appeals court was considering FEC rules enacted in 2005, amid concerns about the amount of unlimited “soft money” contributions to fund campaign attacks in the 2004 election.

The FEC said nonprofits would have to pay for political activities involving federal candidates using limited so-called “hard money” contributions. Individuals may give no more than $5,000 annually in such contributions to a nonprofit that indicates it plans to use the money to support or oppose a federal candidate.

David Kolker, the FEC’s associate general counsel, urged the judges to uphold the rules, noting that the nonprofits can spend as much as they want. “This case doesn’t involve any spending limit,” Mr. Kolker said.

Three of the judges already have voted to lift the contribution limits. Three others on the nine-judge court indicated in their questioning Wednesday they also would do so, saying the Supreme Court decision makes limits on political speech suspect.

“You don’t seem to value the First Amendment very highly,” Judge Sentelle told Mr. Kolker.

The government lawyer replied, somewhat forlornly, that he was doing his job and defending federal election law.

Requirements that nonprofits disclose their donors and their spending also are being challenged, but seemed to have a better chance of surviving. The Supreme Court upheld disclosure rules last week.

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