Daily Kos
Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Saturday | May 03, 2003

Campaign finance law unconstitutional

A special federal court has struck down the cornerstone of the recently passed campaign finance reform law.

A special three-judge federal court panel on Friday struck down much of the law's cornerstone: a broad ban on the use of corporate and union "soft money" contributions by political parties.

In two 2-1 votes, the panel ruled that political parties can raise corporate and union contributions for general party-building activities like get-out-the-vote drives and voter registration, but cannot use them for issue advertising or candidate-specific activities.

In another major finding, the court also ruled as an unconstitutional violation of free speech sweeping new restrictions on election-time political ads by special-interest groups and others. But it said other ad limits the law's sponsors included in the legislation as a backup were constitutional.

The panel made its ruling effective immediately. The nearly 1,700-page decision clears the way for an immediate appeal by the losing parties to the Supreme Court. The high court, which may not hear the case for months, will lay the ground rules for the 2004 elections and beyond.

In one of those inexplicable political ironies, the law is being fought by Republicans, even though it hurts Democrats the most. The two judges who struck down the law were GOP appointed, the dissenter was Democratic appointed.

While Democrats had achieved parity with Republicans in soft money donations, the Republicans have a huge advantage in limited hard-money donations. The court's ruling allows the parties to immediately start collecting soft money donations again, though the law's sponsors will ask the court for a stay until the Supreme Court can make the final ruling on the case.

So while this is being portrayed as a victory for the GOP, in practice, it's a victory for Democrats. Go figure.

In any case, the key rulings are as follows:

  • It ruled 3-0 to uphold a ban on the solicitation of soft money by federal candidates and officeholders for federal campaigns. Unclear is whether they can attend soft-money fund-raising events sponsored by national party committees. The FEC has interpreted the soft-money ban to allow them to attend state and local party fund-raisers and say whatever they wish.

  • Voting 2-1, the court struck down a provision barring a range of interest groups from airing issue ads mentioning federal candidates in those candidates' districts in the month before a primary election and within two months of a general election.

  • In a decision the law's sponsors call a victory, the judges upheld a backup provision in the law that barred a range of groups from airing ads that promote, support, attack or oppose a candidate at any time. Just how far interest groups can go in featuring candidates in ads without running afoul of the backup restrictions is unclear. Neither the courts, the law nor FEC rules have defined what it means to "promote, support, attack or oppose" a candidate.

  • In a 2-1 decision, the court upheld a tougher standard for determining how far interest groups, political parties and candidates can coordinate election activity before interest group or party spending is considered a donation to a candidate subject to federal limits.

  • Ruling unanimously, the court struck down as unconstitutional a provision banning minors from contributing to national party committees or federal candidates.

Posted May 03, 2003 09:23 AM | Comments (32)


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