The Supreme Court yesterday ruled 7-2 that nonprofit advocacy groups that oppose abortion or protect trees are bound by the same ban against giving money to political candidates that applies to commercial companies.
“There is no reason to think the burden on advocacy corporations is any greater,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.
The decision upheld a 1971 revision of a ban on corporate donations dating from 1907, which the court said grew from “a popular feeling in the late 19th century that aggregated capital unduly influenced politics, an influence not stopping short of corruption.”
Also in the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy agreed with the judgment, but not its reasoning, because he does not condone the precedents cited in the decision.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia said in a one-paragraph dissent that imposing broad caps on donors is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The ruling upholds a Federal Election Commission action against North Carolina Right to Life, which sought to create an exception for groups contributing to candidates money collected specifically for political purposes.
“The category covers some of the nation’s most politically powerful organizations, including the AARP, the National Rifle Association, and the Sierra Club,” replied the court, which said nonprofit advocacy groups “are, moreover, no less susceptible … to misuse as conduits” to evade individual contribution limits.
“Any attack on the federal prohibition of direct corporate political contributions goes against the current of a century of congressional efforts,” Justice Souter wrote.
Commercial as well as advocacy corporations may finance political action committees (PACs), which is supposed to dilute direct influence and reduces the potential for corruption, or its appearance, the principle underlying federal and state campaign-contribution limits.
The court said PACs allow corporations to play politics “without the temptation to use corporate funds for political influence, quite possibly at odds with the sentiments of some shareholders or members.”
It also permits government to regulate campaign money without jeopardizing the privacy of advocacy-group members, Justice Souter wrote.
Advocacy group Common Cause praised the decision.
“The court correctly recognized the corrupting political influence of corporate money in the political system and the long-standing consensus that such money should be kept out of American politics,” said Chellie Pingree, the president of the group.
Lawyers for all sides in the battle over new campaign-finance restrictions examined the opinion closely for clues to sentiment on the bench.
“We did ask the court to make the distinction between not-for-profits that the court held in 1986 could be involved in political activity — specifically independent expenditures — and business corporations, which cannot,” said James Bopp, a lawyer for the North Carolina pro-life group.
“The law was not expanded in a way we thought justified,” Mr. Bopp said.
“This decision only serves to reinforce our view that the new campaign-finance law is constitutional,” said Fred Wertheimer, one of the lawyers defending the campaign-finance bill.
The court will spend much of the summer examining the constitutionality of the law named for its Senate sponsors, Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russell D. Feingold. The justices have scheduled four hours of arguments on the matter at a special hearing Sept. 8.
One defender of the complex law, who asked not to be identified, termed it “exceptionally good news” that the court showed no inclination to rethink contribution limits.
Another lawyer was intrigued that the court “went out of its way to include the NRA, which filed the first lawsuit” against the McCain-Feingold regulations.
But most lawyers in the campaign-finance fight were reluctant yesterday to read much into the North Carolina case, at least on the record.
“This is a very narrow decision and the implications for McCain-Feingold are extremely narrow, at best. In fact, the government has already conceded that McCain-Feingold does not cover this type of organization,” said Kenneth W. Starr, who represents Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and a key challenger to the new law.
Seth P. Waxman, who represents Mr. McCain in the case, only said: “The opinion is a welcome reaffirmation of settled campaign-finance precedent.”
Jan Witold Baran, a specialist in campaign-finance law and an ally of Mr. Starr in this case, said the decision is the third rung in a series affirming limits on contributions to candidates but would have little application to new restrictions on giving to political parties or electioneering.
“I’ve read it scouring for insight and I didn’t find any. I don’t think this makes any difference,” he said.
Mr. Baran said he expected more of a signal from a decision scheduled for next week in a case limiting what the Nike Corp. may say in defending itself in the political arena.
“That has more relevance because it deals with spending by a corporation to disseminate its views,” Mr. Baran said.