- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

A high-powered legal team including former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr yesterday vowed to fight new campaign-finance regulations in federal court as unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.

"No election law reform, none, is worth violating the First Amendment," said Floyd Abrams, lead co-counsel with Mr. Starr on the team assembled by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Starr called the ban on large donations to political parties, which received final approval in Congress on Wednesday, "a concerted effort to make speech less robust."

"These are perilous waters into which the republic has now sailed," Mr. Starr said. "The questions are grave, the questions are serious. It is now time for the courts to speak authoritatively to what the Congress has chosen to do."

President Bush has said he will sign the measure, which is to take effect after the Nov. 6 elections. Opponents said they will file their lawsuit soon after Mr. Bush signs the bill into law, with the case to be heard by a special three-judge panel in the District before an inevitable appeal to the Supreme Court.

The court fight is opponents' last chance to kill the regulations after losing a seven-year battle in Congress. Mr. McConnell hailed his legal team as a blend of liberals and conservatives with expertise in election and constitutional law as well as years of experience before the Supreme Court.

"I have brought together the strongest team of skilled, successful and experienced constitutional lawyers in America," Mr. McConnell said. "This is not about Republicans battling Democrats or the left versus the right. This is a mission to preserve the fundamental constitutional freedom of all Americans to fully participate in our democracy."

Other members of the legal team are Kathleen Sullivan, dean of the Stanford University Law School; Bobby Burchfield, co-chairman of the litigation group at Covington & Burling; Jan Baran, an election law specialist at the Washington law firm of Wiley Rein & Fielding; and James Bopp of Terre Haute, Ind., general counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech. They will work for no fee.

Mr. Abrams represented the New York Times in the "Pentagon papers" case and received a Democracy award from the liberal interest group People for the American Way. Both organizations championed the campaign-finance legislation.

Attorneys said they were still drafting their complaint, but they did outline several broad legal strategies for attacking the new regulations. Mr. Starr said they will challenge the measure as a violation of free speech because it imposes restrictions on political donations and bans political advertisements funded by parties or interest groups within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.

Mr. Starr also said the new regulations raise "unprecedented" issues of federalism by imposing fund-raising restrictions on state parties as well. He said the Supreme Court has shown "an almost steely like determination" to ensure the federal government does not encroach on states' rights.

The new regulations ban state and local parties from spending so-called "soft money" on federal elections in nearly all cases.

Mr. Starr said a third prong to the legal challenge will be that the new regulations amount to a "re-engineering" of the nation's political system by shifting the responsibility from national political parties to interest groups that are accountable to no one.

The attorneys said they were likely to argue to the courts that the new regulations were an attempt by Congress to rewrite the Supreme Court's decision in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, a ruling that struck down limitations on campaign expenses by candidates and their committees. The high court said the campaign law in that case imposed "direct and substantial restraints on the quantity of political speech" and the justices invalidated three expenditure limitations as violations of the First Amendment.

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