Supreme Court weighs arguments in campaign-finance case

Tuesday, October 5, 1999

Supreme Court justices seemed ready today for a full-scale review of campaign-finance reform and whether restrictions on the flow of money in politics violate the free-speech rights of contributors and candidates.

But following an hourlong hearing on the issues raised in a Missouri case, it was difficult to predict how the court would rule. Some justices seemed to want more restrictions on campaign finance, while others seemed ready to opt for no limits at all.

“The system has become obsessed with raising money,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy at one point.

In the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that post-Watergate limits on campaign spending by candidates were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. But it upheld a $1,000 limit on individual contributions to candidates as a way of preventing corruption.

In the Missouri case before the court, a federal appeals court struck down a $1,075 limit on contributions to state candidates. Defending the state law, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said the political system has been “vibrant and alive” since the high court ruled decades ago.

But some justices clearly disagreed and think the court’s past rulings have contributed to the skyrocketing influence of money in politics. Justice Antonin Scalia asked Nixon skeptically, “You think there is great contentment and satisfaction with the finance system? You have a sense that it’s worked real well?”

Kennedy, who could be a swing vote on the issue, seemed ready to scrap limits on contributions altogether, on the theory that any limits infringe on freedom of speech. “If a contribution is speech, can speech be a subversion of the political process?” he asked.

A decision in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC could come anytime before the end of the court’s term next summer.