A sometimes-perplexed Supreme Court listened for four hours yesterday as lawyers assailed and defended the new federal campaign-money law that governs presidential and congressional elections unless justices intervene.
“This effort by Congress at least deserves a chance to prove itself,” said Seth P. Waxman, the main sponsors’ attorney in a showdown on the McCain-Feingold law, which already is in effect.
“Congress chose this court. … The case is submitted,” said Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, brushing off the defender’s plea to let it work. A decision is expected within weeks.
Although the 495-page measure includes hundreds of provisions, yesterday’s often-technical argument focused on its ban against corporations and unions contributing unregulated “soft money” to political parties, and restrictions on broadcast issue ads that identify candidates in the weeks before elections.
Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat; and Reps. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, clustered in the leftmost front row while challengers sat together on the right side of the packed courtroom.
Leading a coordinated broad charge against the law was Kenneth W. Starr, former solicitor general and federal circuit judge, representing a coalition of challengers under the banner of Senate Republican Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“[The law] intrudes deeply into the political life of the nation,” said Mr. Starr, who told the court it tramples grass-roots political activity at state and local levels. “In effect, it shifts resources and power away from political parties … into the hands of razor-sharp interest groups.”
Attacking the soft-money ban was Bobby Burchfield, a Washington lawyer who said it wrested power from the historic control of the Republican and Democratic parties.
“National parties are in fact national parties, not federal parties,” he said in opposing a ban on parties giving money to state committees even in off-year elections when no federal office is at stake. Mr. Burchfield said the measure makes it a felony for a Republican national chairman to contribute $100 to a candidate in the California recall election.
“Any penny given to a state committee is a penny that will influence a federal election,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said.
A number of other members of Congress crowded into the courtroom along with much of political Washington to hear justices and lawyers banter about whether senators and representatives are the best judges of money’s potential to corrupt — or simply beneficiaries of a law to insure their re-elections.
Justice John Paul Stevens criticized the issue-advertising ban, which keeps interest groups from attacking or praising a federal candidate’s political stances for at least 120 days of an election year.
“Why does electing someone president of the United States have less constitutional protection than advocating a stand on the Panama Canal?” Justice Stevens asked.
He pointed out that only “express advocacy” — saying “vote” — was barred by laws replaced by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, its formal name.
Express advocacy was “the easiest thing in the world to avoid,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
When Mr. Waxman urged the justices to review a bound collection of pointedly partisan issue ads, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy scoffed that Congress said such ads “made them feel very bad,” so they restricted them.
“We wouldn’t accept that rationale from a city council. Why should we accept it from Congress?” Justice Kennedy demanded of Mr. Waxman.
“Congress was closing a loophole that the political ad director of the [National Rifle Association] called a line in the sand drawn on a windy day,” Mr. Waxman said.