WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court--striking down a major Watergate-era campaign reform law--ruled Monday that political action committees may continue to make unlimited independent expenditures on behalf of presidential candidates.
The justices, in a 7-2 decision, held that a law limiting such spending to $1,000--in contrast to the millions of dollars that were spent in the general elections of 1980 and 1984--violated the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. The law has not been enforced because of the pending court decision.
The ruling is a major victory for two political action committees that have played a significant role in the nation's presidential elections. Together, the National Conservative Political Action Committee and the Fund for a Conservative Majority spent more than $10 million on behalf of President Reagan in the 1980 campaign, compared to the $30,000 spent by committees backing President Jimmy Carter.
Spent $15 Million
NCPAC and FCM spent an estimated $15 million backing Reagan in 1984. No figures are available on political action committee spending on behalf of Walter F. Mondale, the Democratic presidential candidate last year.
The decision clears the way for increased presidential campaign activity by about 4,000 other such committees--called PACs--now organized in the United States.
The law at issue in Monday's ruling does not apply to congressional elections. Although there is no limit on spending by political action committees, such committees may give as much as $5,000 in contributions to congressional candidates for each election.
The court, in an opinion by Justice William H. Rehnquist, acknowledged that today's political action committees are a far cry from street-corner political orators--and that, technically, the law at issue limited expenditures, not speech.
But, in a nationwide presidential election, Rehnquist said, "allowing the presentation of views while forbidding the expenditure of more than $1,000 to present them is much like allowing a speaker in a public hall to express his views while denying him the use of an amplifying system."
In a sharp dissent, Justice Byron R. White accused the majority of transforming Congress' campaign-spending reform attempt into a "nonsensical, loophole-ridden patchwork." Justice Thurgood Marshall, in another dissent, said that spending limits should be upheld as a justifiable means of promoting "equal access to the political arena," as well as "eliminating political corruption and the appearance of such corruption."
The decision was notable in one other respect: The result may have become known prematurely because of a rare "leak" from the court.
The justices' work is closely guarded and their judgments are known only to a few at the court before they are officially released. But the Fund for a Conservative Majority had distributed elaborately prepared news releases late last week, predicting victory and announcing that it planned a news conference at 10:30 a.m. Monday, a half hour after the time at which the court announces its decisions.
Robert C. Heckman, the fund's chairman, denied that the group was privy to confidential information, saying that it had simply calculated that a decision was likely to be announced soon. "It was honestly just a wild stab," he said. A court official refused to comment.
The $1,000 spending limit was one of several provisions of extensive campaign reform legislation passed in the 1970s after the Watergate scandal and the campaign finance abuses it disclosed. Laws were enacted aimed at limiting the opportunity for corruption, including a plan for public financing of presidential campaigns and restrictions on private contributions and spending.
In 1976, the Supreme Court, in the case of Buckley vs. Valeo, substantially upheld the new legislation. The justices approved limits on direct contributions to candidates for federal office, saying that they were justified as a means of preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. But they struck down limits on individual, independent expenditures made in behalf of such candidates, saying that the provision collided with the right of free speech.
Monday's case involved a law enacted in 1974 that imposed a $1,000 limit on expenditures by independent political action committees on behalf of presidential candidates who receive public financing for their general election campaigns.
PACs Solicit Donations
Such committees solicit donations from individual contributors and make expenditures for radio and television advertisements and other campaign activities on behalf of--but independent from--a candidate's campaign committee.