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Court backs ban on ‘soft money’

By Greg Stohr
Bloomberg News / June 30, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court yesterday rejected a Republican challenge to the centerpiece of the 2002 campaign finance overhaul, upholding the law’s ban on unregulated “soft money’’ contributions to political parties.

Five months after striking down federal limits on corporate campaign spending, the justices rebuffed free-speech arguments against separate contribution restrictions that apply to businesses, unions, and individuals. The court issued no opinion, instead summarily upholding a lower court ruling.

The decision marks a rare Supreme Court victory for supporters of campaign spending regulations. Although Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy said they would have scheduled arguments, they were unable to persuade the two swing justices on campaign finance questions — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito — to join them.

“The soft money ban lives for another election,’’ said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

In March, federal judges in Washington said the recent campaign rulings have left the political parties at a disadvantage relative to outside interest groups now that they are unencumbered by contribution or independent spending limits. But those judges said they lacked authority to overturn the soft money ban because the Supreme Court explicitly endorsed it in 2003.

The appeal by the Republican National Committee, RNC chairman Michael Steele, the California Republican Party, and the San Diego GOP is being handled by lawyer Theodore Olson, who successfully urged the court to overturn the ban on independent spending by corporations and unions.

When he served as the Bush administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Olson once defended the provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that was challenged. That law is named after two leading sponsors of the law, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.

Democrats have opposed the Republican effort, even though they, too, would be allowed to collect unlimited contributions.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.