Court allows issue ads near elections
Court allows issue ads near elections
By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer 2 minutes ago
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court loosened political
advertising restrictions aimed at corporate- and
union-funded television ads Monday, weakening a key
provision of a landmark campaign finance law.
The court's 5-4 ruling could become a significant
factor in the upcoming presidential primaries, giving
interest groups a louder and more influential voice in
the closing days before those contests as well as the
The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that an
anti-abortion group should have been allowed to air
ads during the final two months before the 2004
elections. The law unreasonably limits speech and
violates the group's First Amendment rights, the court
"Discussion of issues cannot be suppressed simply
because the issues may also be pertinent in an
election," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the
majority. "Where the First Amendment is implicated,
the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor."
The case involved advertisements that Wisconsin Right
to Life was prevented from broadcasting. The ads asked
voters to contact the state's two senators, Democrats
Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, and urge them not to
filibuster President Bush's judicial nominees.
Feingold, a co-author of the campaign finance law, was
up for re-election in 2004.
The provision in question was aimed at preventing the
airing of issue ads that cast candidates in positive
or negative lights while stopping short of explicitly
calling for their election or defeat. Sponsors of such
ads have contended they are exempt from certain limits
on contributions in federal elections.
A first test of the impact of the court's opinion
could come as early as December, a month before
presidential caucuses and primaries in Iowa, Nevada,
New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"The ruling could have important implications for the
2008 presidential election and could reorder the
advertising strategies of corporate America and labor
unions over the next two years," said Michael Toner, a
former chairman of the Federal Election Commission,
which oversees campaign finance law.
The decision is a setback for Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., who helped write the 2002 campaign finance
legislation with Feingold that contained the
advertising provision. McCain, now a presidential
candidate, has come under criticism from conservatives
for attempting to restrict political money and
"It is regrettable that a split Supreme Court has
carved out a narrow exception by which some corporate
and labor expenditures can be used to target a federal
candidate in the days and weeks before an election,"
McCain said in a statement.
The court's decision, however, has no effect on the
more far-reaching component of the campaign finance
law it's ban on the ability of political parties to
raise unlimited and unrestricted amounts of money from
unions, corporations and wealthy donors.
"Fortunately," McCain said, "that central reform still
stands as the law."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has
been critical of McCain's stance, promptly hailed the
"McCain-Feingold was a poorly-crafted bill," Romney
said in a statement. "Today's decision restores, in
part, to the American people a right critical to their
freedom of political participation and expression."
Three justices, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas, would have overruled the court's 2003
decision upholding the constitutionality of the
Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito said only that the
Wisconsin group's ads are not the equivalent of
explicit campaign ads and are not covered by the
court's 2003 decision.
That means the FEC will likely have to step in and
write specific rules about such advertising that
reflect the court's opinion.
Justice David Souter, joined by his three liberal
colleagues, said in his dissent that the court
"effectively and, unjustifiably, overruled" the
The ads could have been run, Souter pointed out, had
they been paid for out of the group's political action
committee, which is subject to federal campaign
finance limits. Or Feingold's name could have been
omitted, he said.
"Thus, what is called a 'ban' on speech is a limit on
the financing of electioneering broadcasts by entities
... that insist on acting as conduits from the
campaign war chests of business corporations," Souter
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John
Paul Stevens joined Souter's dissent.
The Bush administration urged the court to ban the
ads, arguing that they were meant to influence the
elections, not lobby the senators.
An array of interest groups across the political
spectrum sought the outcome the court reached Monday.
They include: the American Civil Liberties Union, the
National Rifle Association, labor unions and business
The consolidated case is Federal Election Commission
v. Wisconsin Right to Life, 06-969, and McCain v.
Wisconsin Right to Life, 06-970.