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Supreme Court hears campaign-reform debate

Members of the U.S. Supreme Court Monday indicated great
uneasiness with the shortcomings of the 2002 campaign-reform law -- the fate of
which rests in their hands -- but also wariness with the idea of striking down a
good government reform aimed at mitigating the influence of big money in federal

During oral argument before the national’s top court, lawyers challenging the
law made such far-reaching attacks on it that if carried to their
logical end, the justices indicated, would also cast aspersion on previous
campaign-finance regulations that have been in place for decades.

"If you do not accept what Congress has done here, you are doing a complete
end-run around prior law," Justice David Souter told Kenneth Starr, attorney for
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the lead plaintiff seeking the law’s elimination.

Souter’s question, echoed by other justices, was rhetorical, although
Justice Antonin Scalia alone among his colleagues indicated that he might have
little problem doing away with long-standing campaign-donation limits such as
caps on individuals’ donations to candidates.

"Just because it's been around for 30 years doesn’t convince me that it's valid,"
Scalia said during arguments.

At issue is the fate of a campaign-finance law sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
and Russ Feingold (R-Wis.) and Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) that would ban
national political parities from raising "soft money" that isn’t bound by
federal donation limits and prohibits state and local parties from using soft
money in federal elections.

Also, corporations and labor unions would be barred from buying political ads
that mention a federal candidate within the 30 days before a primary and 60 days
before a general election. The restriction on corporate and
union ads came under particular attack.

Souter said Congress had set up a "false dichotomy" by forbidding ads that
mention candidate names because voters will be able to figure out which
candidates support the position taken by the advertiser.

"Most of those ads are hybrids," he said. “This is a silly
distinction,” added Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The justices also questioned whether the soft-money ban will accomplish
anything beyond weakening the influence of political parties and enriching
interest groups such as the National Rifle Association and the National Abortion
Rights Action League.

"The power and the money will shift to those groups," Justice
Stephen Breyer said.

A special panel of lower court federal judges struck down some of the law’s
provisions earlier this year and upheld others, but the high court did not
address the specifics of the previous ruling during Monday’s argument.

The court has not said when it will rule, but it is moving the case on an
expedited basis basis for the 2004 elections.