- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether its 1986 decision freeing small interest groups from election-spending curbs also freed advocacy groups to finance congressional or presidential candidates.

While awaiting the expected test later this term of the sweeping McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the Supreme Court took up a Federal Election Commission appeal from a ruling blocking it from enforcing a 1971 election law against North Carolina Right to Life Inc. and voters who contribute to that group.

Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson told the Supreme Court that the FEC needs "uniform campaign financing rules governing federal elections across the country" without patchwork exceptions.

The ruling "creates inequality among potential corporate contributors, and potential chaos and confusion as to which campaign financing rules apply to which political contributions and which recipients," Mr. Olson told the court.

A decision in FEC v. Beaumont is likely before June, by which time there is wide expectation of a separate decision on restrictions included in the unrelated campaign finance law being challenged by a coalition of organizations and individuals before a special three-judge District Court. That law forbids some ads close to elections and limits "soft money" gifts to political parties by individuals, corporations or political action committees.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to declare the FEC regulations under the 1971 law unconstitutional on their face but said they were applied too broadly to organizations that do not pose the risk of nor appearance of corruption.

The 4th Circuit noted that the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled similarly last year in a case involving the National Rifle Association.

Nonprofits supported by member contributions offer "none of the danger of corruption to the political system that business corporations pose," said a filing by James Bopp, lawyer for North Carolina Right to Life.

Both the 4th Circuit and D.C. Circuit decisions nullify any distinction between interest-group spending that may advocate election or defeat of a candidate, permitted under the 1986 decision in another anti-abortion case, and contributions directly to a campaign, which were forbidden.

FEC regulations allow contributions to candidates only by individuals, political action committees, political parties and FEC-registered campaign committees.

"The district court correctly found the distinction between contributions and expenditures to be immaterial in this case," the 4th Circuit panel said in an opinion written by Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who questioned the sweep of FEC rules.

"The commission asks us to hold that an absolute ban on every direct contribution by every nonprofit advocacy corporation in American is altogether legitimate. No matter how small the organization, no matter how modest the contribution, and no matter how absent the threat the group poses to the political process, the FEC argues that the contribution can be prohibited," the 4th Circuit said.

The 4th Circuit upheld the North Carolina trial judge's decision that the FEC regulations were applied unconstitutionally and issued a permanent order against prosecuting the organization or several voters who also sued the federal agency.


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