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Ban on 'Soft Money' Stands

May 20, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The federal ban on "soft money" political contributions will survive -- for now.

That was the gist of a federal court's decision Monday to suspend its recent ruling on the new campaign law until the Supreme Court decides the case.

As a result, political parties, presidential and congressional candidates, and interest groups will have to abide by all provisions of the law, even though the lower court had found some unconstitutional.

The ruling was a victory for the Justice Department and the law's congressional sponsors, led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). "We are pleased that the court recognized the importance of certainty and continuity in the campaign finance system for the 2004 election cycle," the sponsors said in a statement.

In Monday's ruling, two of the three judges on a special U.S. District Court panel said they wanted to avoid adding further confusion to the complex world of political fund-raising.

Had the court not acted, fund-raisers might have confronted constantly shifting rules in the 2003-04 election cycle.

The new campaign law's key element -- its ban on raising and spending the unlimited and largely unregulated donations known as soft money -- went into effect Nov. 6. That was a huge change for a political system in which soft money played an increasingly important role.

This month, in a split ruling, the lower court allowed soft money to be raised again for some partisan purposes -- but not for election-related broadcast attacks known as "issue" advertisements, paid for by political parties.

The Supreme Court, this year or next, could rewrite the rules yet again.

"This court's desire to prevent the litigants from facing potentially three different regulatory regimes in a very short time span ... counsels in favor of granting a stay in this case," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson and U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon dissented Monday, arguing that at least part of the campaign law should be blocked immediately.

"Every day these [McCain-Feingold] provisions remain in effect, donors are restricted from using donations to amplify their voices through their political parties, thereby suffering irreparable injury," Leon wrote.

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