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Supreme Court to Review Campaign Spending Limit

Politics: The case will test whether the Watergate-era restriction on political parties violates free speech rights.


WASHINGTON — While reformers are seeking new limits on campaign spending, the Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will consider striking down the 26-year-old limit on how much political parties spend to promote their candidates.

At issue is a rather obscure Watergate-era rule that puts a cap on how national and state parties use money that has been raised legally in donations of less than $5,000.

Lawyers for the California Republican Party say these limits no longer make sense. If their viewpoint prevails in the high court, the outcome could revive the parties as a dominant force in politics.

In the 1976 case of Buckley vs. Valeo, the Supreme Court threw out most campaign spending limits. That case upheld limits on contributions to candidates, however. At that time, the limits on party spending went unchallenged.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 12, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Political money case--A story in Wednesday's Times about the Supreme Court's decision to hear a case on campaign spending limits misidentified the lawyers involved. They represent the Colorado Republican Party.

More recently, the entire system of campaign funding rules has sprung a series of leaks. Presidential candidates and their parties have gone around the federal rules by raising large amounts of unregulated "soft money" that is supposed to be used solely for party and vote-promotion efforts but in practice is often spent on ads that benefit specific candidates.

Congress so far has been unwilling to pass laws that would prohibit this sort of back-door campaign spending.

Meanwhile, GOP lawyers have gone to court insisting that the outdated party spending rules should be thrown out on free speech grounds. Four years ago, the court threw out limits on party spending that was independent of the candidates. The new case tests whether limits on spending that is coordinated with the candidates should also be abolished.

"This is about spending good, clean money. And the limits directly impinge on the speech of political parties," said Washington lawyer Jan W. Baran, who represented the Colorado Republican Party in challenging the rules.

In May, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver agreed and struck down the limits on free speech grounds. In its appeal, the Federal Election Commission argued that parties should not have too much financial power over their candidates. "A federal elected official should not be unduly beholden to a single source of financial support," the FEC said.

The party spending limits vary depending on the office and the state's population. For House candidates, parties can spend no more than $33,780. In California, parties can spend up to $3.2 million for a U.S. Senate race. The justices will hear the case (FEC vs. Colorado Republicans, 00-191) during the winter.

In a second test of freedom of speech, the court agreed Tuesday to decide whether a Christian youth group has a right to use a public school building after hours for prayers and Bible study.

Seven years ago, the high court ruled against a Long Island, N.Y., school district that refused a Christian group's request to use its auditorium for a film that promoted "traditional Christian family values." Unanimously, the justices said that restriction violated the group's free speech rights.

The new case, from upstate New York, goes one step further and tests whether public schools must open their facilities to groups for "religious worship."

Milford Central School had a policy of opening their facilities for "social, civic and recreational" uses but not "for religious purposes."

The Good News Club, a Christian group that uses Bible stories, prayers and songs to help develop moral values in children, says that exclusion amounts to "discrimination" against religious speakers. The court said that it will hear the appeal in the case (Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, 99-2036) during the winter.

Over the last decade, the high court has taken two tracks on school religion cases. On one hand, it has insisted that public school officials may not promote religion. In June, it struck down a Texas school board's policy of having students elect a senior to deliver prayers at school events. At the same time, the justices have insisted that students have a free speech right to pray on their own or to participate in Bible studies at school after hours.

In other actions, the court:

* Agreed to decide whether criminal immigrants who face deportation can be held indefinitely if they cannot be returned to their native lands (Reno vs. Ma, 00-38).

* Said it would decide whether a buyer of beachfront property is due money if the government later rejects his development plans. Since 1987, when the court ruled in favor of a Ventura homeowner, the justices have been split on what is a "taking" of private property by the government. The case (Palazzolo vs. Rhode Island, 99-2047) comes from a landowner who says he has been trying for years to build homes in an area of tidal marshes.

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