WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 congressional campaigns.
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 election.
“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 She has retired and been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who could join the court’s four other conservatives to limit how the law is applied.
Alito voiced concern while questioning Seth Waxman, the attorney representing four members of Congress who support the law.
“What do you make of the fact that there are so many advocacy groups that say this is really impractical?” Alito asked.
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.