Saturday, January 20, 2007

Supreme Court to decide case on broadcast political ads

Supreme Court to decide case on broadcast political ads
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide the reach of a federal law that bans certain broadcast advertisements before an election, a case with important implications for the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns.

The justices said they would decide a case involving an anti-abortion group called Wisconsin Right to Life in its free-speech challenge to a key part of a 2002 federal campaign finance law that seeks to limit the influence of money in politics.

That part of the law bans corporations, unions and special interest groups from using unrestricted money to run television or radio ads that refer to a candidate for federal office two months before a general election or one month before a primary election.

Wisconsin Right to Life argued the ban should not be applied to three ads it wanted to run in 2004 to criticize Sen. Russell Feingold for supporting efforts to block confirmation of several of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.

Because Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, was running for re-election at the time, the ads were prohibited. Feingold had coauthored the landmark campaign finance law with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

The ads urged people to call Feingold and the state's other senator, Democrat Herb Kohl, to urge them to oppose filibusters of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.


A federal court panel ruled last month that the ads were not election ads covered by the law, but were general issue ads that did not aim to influence voters.

"The language in ... the advertisements does not mention an election, a candidacy or a political party, nor do they comment on a candidate's character, actions or fitness for office," U.S. District Judge Richard Leon wrote in the opinion.

The law's supporters warned the ruling could create a big loophole by allowing thinly disguised issue ads that really are for or against a candidate.

The Bush administration, representing the Federal Election Commission which administers the campaign finance laws, appealed to the Supreme Court.

Four members of Congress -- Sen. McCain and Reps. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, both Democrats, and Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays -- also appealed. They said the ruling threatened to create a large class of ads exempt from the law.

The Supreme Court could set important rules in deciding whether such ads will be allowed and how judges should decide such cases.

Attorneys for Wisconsin Right to Life said the Supreme Court should decide the key factors for determining when ads involve "grass-roots lobbying" and are exempt from the law.

The high court is expected to hear arguments in late April and to decide the case by the end of June, well in advance of the primaries for the 2008 presidential and congressional elections.

In 2003, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote upheld key parts of the campaign finance law. But it has allowed challenges on how the law is applied in specific cases, like the one from Wisconsin.

The court's four liberals, along with moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, voted to uphold the law. She has retired and been replaced with Justice Samuel Alito, who could join the court's four other conservatives to limit the law's reach.