Friday, June 6, 2003

Supreme Court justices yesterday decided to cut short their own summer vacations so they can speedily consider the constitutionality of complex new limits on political money in time to affect the 2004 federal elections.

In a decision announced after yesterday’s regular closed conference, the justices scheduled an extraordinary four hours of arguments for Sept. 8, a month before the next term of the court begins.

They compressed to 77 days a briefing time that normally allows a minimum of 115 days.

The timing guaranteed that for many top Washington lawyers the summer will be spent at the office dealing with a barrage of legal arguments and counterarguments over whether the measure’s barriers to fund raising and spending in presidential and congressional campaigns violate the Constitution.

The campaign finance law passed last year doubled the amount that individuals can contribute to specific candidates and virtually eliminated the use of “soft money” — unlimited funds given to political organizations without being earmarked for a specific candidate. The law also sharply restricted interest groups from running ads endorsing or opposing candidates.

Even with speedy handling by the high court, the dispute threatens to throw the entire 2004 election cycle into disarray because a special three-judge District Court left the law in force despite ruling on May 2 that major segments are unconstitutional.

Some key financing avenues remain closed if the law stands, but a change in fund-raising or spending ground rules during campaigns that already have begun also could cause political chaos.

The three-judge court upheld the new ban against political parties raising soft money to promote or attack candidates for federal office, but threw out a section forbidding political parties from using soft money for such party-building activities as voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives.

The splintered decision, with 2-1 votes on many aspects, also ruled that radio and television issue ads paid for by corporations or unions may not support or oppose federal candidates. The lower court threw out the section forbidding minors to contribute to candidates, a measure intended to prevent parents from getting around contribution limits.

An accelerated schedule requires that briefs be filed by July 8 by lawyers for the 12 principal challengers to the Bipartisan Campaign-Finance Reform Act — better known as McCain-Feingold for its sponsors, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.

Responses by defendants in the original case — the Federal Election Commission in 10 of the 12 lawsuits — are due Aug. 5. The deadline for any replies was set for Aug. 21, less than three weeks before the hearing, at which lawyers for all sides will take turns seeking attention for their perspectives.

Those who must lay out their case first include Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who led the court attack on the law and leads challengers in other cases, which include: the National Rifle Association; Republican National Committee; National Right to Life; the American Civil Liberties Union; Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican; the California Democratic Party; the AFL-CIO; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Because of the law’s complexity, and the unprecedented size of a 1,368-page ruling by the District Court — so complicated the judges drew diagrams to help lawyers navigate the outcome — the scheduled argument session is four times the usual one hour given to both sides in a case.

However, despite the lower court’s verbosity, briefs in the case may actually have to be brief. The Supreme Court did not alter its rules yesterday on the size of legal briefs. Main briefs and the responses are restricted to 50 printed pages, not counting covers and some material required by the court. Any subsequent reply must be 20 pages or less.

The four-hour Sept. 8 session will begin at 10 a.m. with a likely lunch break after the first two hours.

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