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Justices reject strict limits on campaign contributions

WASHINGTON—In a set of sharply fractured opinions, the Supreme Court on Monday made the constitutional boundaries for campaign-finance restrictions more unclear than they had been—a considerable feat given how murky this area of law was even before the ruling.

In a 6-3 vote, the justices rejected an aggressive Vermont campaign-finance law that set very low ceilings for campaign contributions and slapped tight restrictions on how much candidates could spend. The court said the contribution limit was too restrictive and that the expenditure limit was unconstitutional under the landmark 1976 ruling, Buckley v. Valeo.

But while six justices agreed that the Vermont law must be struck down, they splintered over why. Ultimately, the justices issued six separate opinions on the case, with no more than three justices behind the reasoning for any single position. And at the poles of legal logic, the justices' views were separated by fundamentally different views of the Constitution.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia would obliterate nearly all campaign-finance laws—and court precedents on the issue—as inappropriate infringements on First Amendment protection for free speech. As they see it, money in a political campaign equates to speech and should be beyond the reach of government regulation.

But Justice John Paul Stevens has long believed that money is property, not speech, and can be regulated. He added Monday that he also would overturn the court's prior rulings on the issue—to pave the way for more stringent campaign-finance laws.

In the middle was Justice Stephen Breyer, whose controlling opinion adopted a pragmatic approach. It overturned the Vermont law and preserved the court's long-standing, though muddled, method of determining when campaign-finance restrictions go too far.

Breyer fully embraced the landmark 1976 ruling, which permitted limits on political contributions and rejected campaign-expenditure caps. He also nodded to a 2003 ruling that largely embraced the more stringent McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign finance.

But Breyer's opinion was hamstrung by those of Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. They joined him in striking down the Vermont law, but both suggested that the court's 1976 and 2003 rulings were too accepting of campaign limits and could be reconsidered.

"They're saying they may want a new standard and one that more rigorously reviews campaign restrictions," said Ned Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University and head of that school's Election Law project.

"So this opinion looms large now, and we'll see a lot of litigation testing its limits, trying to push the law in a direction that frowns on campaign restrictions. We're likely to see more invalidations of campaign-finance laws."

The court's deep split isn't unique, but the depth of differences is certainly unusual. In most cases, the justices tend to adopt positions that include only shades of difference from one another. They may disagree about procedure or interpretation, but they generally reach consensus on the framework for their decisions.

But the gap in the Vermont case between Stevens' position and the one embraced by Scalia and Thomas is fundamental and philosophical.

Stevens sees the integrity of the democratic process as paramount and money as corrosive. It makes citizens—who each have but one vote—unequal in the extent to which their voices can be heard. Candidates also gain unfair advantage through money when one grossly outspends another, Stevens said Monday.

He made his point in sweeping language.

"It was the content of William Jennings Bryant's comments on the `Cross of Gold'—and William McKinley's responses delivered from his front porch in Canton, Ohio—rather than any expenditure of money that appealed to their cost-free audiences," he wrote. "Neither Abraham Lincoln nor John F. Kennedy paid for the opportunity to engage in the debates with Stephen Douglas and Richard Nixon that may well have determined the outcome of presidential elections."

Scalia and Thomas, by contrast, elevate individual liberty above concerns about electoral process, saying that restrictions on citizens or candidates are infringements on their freedom.

Thomas wrote that the court was right to strike down the Vermont restrictions, but it was wrong in a more general sense because the majority relied on prior decisions that permit contribution limits.

"There is simply no way to calculate just how much money a person would need to receive before he would be corrupt or perceived to be corrupt," Thomas wrote. He said that the court's 1976 ruling permitting limits on campaign contributions should be overruled.

Law professor Foley said the case is a prime example of campaign-finance law's complexity.

"It's about competing values, and that's hard to reconcile," Foley said. "Ultimately, Breyer wrote an important opinion that tried to compromise. But the future of the law is likely to move toward less acceptance of restrictions."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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