- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Supreme Court’s endorsement of a campaign finance law came down to the vote of the one justice who is the only former politician on the court.

Sandra Day O’Connor co-wrote the 5-4 opinion that upheld the 2002 law. She split ranks with the court’s other conservatives who complained bitterly that the ruling undermined free-speech protections.

Justice O’Connor is the swing vote in most of the more divisive issues, including affirmative action and capital punishment, that reach the high court. Her vote often is the toughest of the nine to predict. Of all the justices, she ends up on the losing side the least: just five of last year’s 81 cases, for example.

Both sides knew the outcome of yesterday’s case turned on Justice O’Connor, one of the court’s more senior members. She was an elected state senator and judge in Arizona before President Reagan chose her as the court’s first female member in 1981.

Some of her votes in previous cases had given campaign finance critics hope that she would give them something to cheer. She didn’t.

“It’s really hard to resist the notion that Justice O’Connor is the most powerful woman in America. I wouldn’t doubt that Hillary Clinton would agree with that,” said New York lawyer Floyd Abrams, who represented the law’s main congressional opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Among recent examples of the 73-year-old’s influence:

• She wrote the court’s 5-4 decision in June that allowed the nation’s colleges and universities to select students based in part on race.

• She joined Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a fellow moderate conservative, in striking down bans on homosexual sex earlier this year and separately in a 2002 decision that executing mentally retarded people is unconstitutionally cruel.

• She cast the deciding vote in a 2002 case that upheld some school voucher programs as constitutional.

Justice O’Connor’s political experience must have affected her approach to the campaign finance case, court-watchers said.

“I bet she could empathize with elected officials who have to grovel for money,” said Washington lawyer David Frederick, who represented former Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, in encouraging the court to uphold the law.


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