Supreme Court turns away corporate-contribution appeal
The U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to hear an appeal from a
Pennsylvania businessman facing criminal charges after he enlisted employees to
make political contributions and then reimbursed them with corporate funds.
The justices, without comment, let stand a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals ruling from last May that said laws prohibiting corporations from
making direct contributions to federal candidates do not violate the First
Renato P. Mariani, former president of Empire Sanitary Landfill Inc.,
faces criminal charges of violating federal election laws after he and other
former officials enlisted company employees to make contributions to the 1996
campaigns of President Clinton, his Republican challenger Bob Dole and several
other federal candidates. The company later reimbursed the employees.
The case, United States v.
Mariani, is pending before a federal district court in
But Mariani contended the laws violated his free-speech rights and
sought a declaratory judgment on that issue.
The 3rd Circuit upheld the laws, saying the Supreme Court —
ruling in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo
and earlier this year in
Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC
— had allowed the government to draw narrow restrictions on campaign
contributions in an effort to prevent corruption in campaign financing.
Noted First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, who led Mariani’s team of
lawyers, argued that a ban on corporate contributions couldn’t be sustained
with the “soft-money loophole.” Soft money describes the mostly unregulated
dollars given to political parties for issue ads and party-building
The appeals court addressed the distinction between the two types of
donations in its ruling.
“The practical distinctions between hard and soft money may have
diminished in the past decade with the rise of issue advocacy, but not to such
an extent that we can say that there is no benefit from distinguishing between
the two,” the court wrote.
Any effort to make such distinctions, the court concluded, must come
from the legislative branch.
“We cannot exchange our robes for togas; any reform in this area must
be sought from Congress,” the court wrote.
Glen Moramarco, senior attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice,
which had filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the government’s case,
said Abrams was correct in saying the soft-money loophole complicates laws
governing campaign financing.
“But unlike Abrams, we suggest that the problem lies not with
corporate contributions but with the soft-money loophole,” Moramarco said.
He said the Mariani case
shows why Congress needs to pass the McCain-Feingold bill, which calls for an
end to soft-money donations.
Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has
opposed efforts to restrict campaign financing, said reformers shouldn’t hold
too much stock in the Supreme Court denying certiorari in this court case.
“This is not where the debate is heading, so they really can’t use the
case to advance their effort,” Pilon said.
Attorney James Bopp, who has filed dozens of campaign lawsuits on
behalf of groups such as the Christian Coalition, agreed.
“It was so utterly predictable,” Bopp said. “We have had the court
saying for nearly a 100 years that states and the federal government could
prohibit corporate contributions to political candidates. It’s hardly
surprising that the court would not grant cert on an issue that is so