WASHINGTON The argument that a law banning some
broadcast ads before an election violates U.S. free-speech
rights won some backing from conservatives on the Supreme Court
on Wednesday while liberals said it limited the influence of
money in politics.
The two views of the federal law emerged during arguments
in a case that could determine whether the ban remains in
effect and how it is applied for next year's presidential and
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia seemed most sympathetic
to the free-speech challenge by an anti-abortion group called
Wisconsin Right to Life to an important part of the 2002
federal campaign finance law.
That part of the law bans corporations, unions and special
interest groups from using unrestricted money to run television
or radio ads that refer to a candidate for federal office two
months before a general election or one month before a primary
"This is the First Amendment. We don't make people guess
whether their speech is going to be allowed by Big Brother or
not," Scalia said.
"If you are going to cut off the speech, there ought to be
a clear line," Scalia told Solicitor General Paul Clement, who
defended the law. "And you're not giving us any."
In 2003, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote upheld the
campaign finance law. But it has allowed challenges on how the
law is applied in specific cases, like the one from Wisconsin.
Chief Justice John Roberts, one of President George W.
Bush's two conservative appointments to the high court, said
several times it could rule for the Wisconsin group without
overturning its 2003 decision, indicating the issue could be
decided on more narrow grounds.
In 2003, the court's four liberals were joined by moderate
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in upholding the law. She has
retired and been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who could
join the court's four other conservatives to limit how the law
Alito voiced concern while questioning Seth Waxman, the
attorney representing four members of Congress who support the
"What do you make of the fact that there are so many
advocacy groups that say this is really impractical?" Alito
Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter seemed the
most supportive of the law.
Breyer warned the attorney for Wisconsin Right to Life,
which wants the court to declare the law unconstitutional, of
the consequences "if you open the gates and say corporations
and rich givers or whatever can contribute by writing these ads
and paying for them."
Wisconsin Right to Life wanted to run three ads in 2004 to
criticize Sen. Russell Feingold for supporting efforts to block
confirmation of several of Bush's judicial nominees.
Because Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, was running for
re-election at the time, the ads were prohibited. Feingold had
coauthored the landmark campaign finance law with Sen. John
McCain, an Arizona Republican who formally launched his own bid
for the presidency on Wednesday.
A decision in the case is expected by the end of June.