WASHINGTON – A judge has struck down several government rules on campaign fund raising, ordering tougher restrictions on big political money in the long term while creating uncertainty about how candidates, parties and interest groups should proceed in the current election's final weeks.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly (search) did not specifically address how political spenders in the heat of the 2004 campaign should act in the absence of the rules, which spell out how the Federal Election Commission (search) interprets the nation's campaign finance law.
Lawyers for Democratic and Republican campaigns said they were assuming the FEC's current regulations would remain in effect while new rules were written. They noted that the judge declined to issue an order blocking the commission from enforcing the regulations while it worked on new ones.
Kollar-Kotelly said some of the regulations the FEC adopted after the law was passed in 2002 would "create an immense loophole" Congress never intended. The judge's ruling was released Saturday on a court Web site and was discovered Monday by key parties.
The decision was a victory for lawmakers who sponsored the 2002 law and have accused the FEC of weakening some of the restrictions on big donations.
"It means that everybody better pay attention to the law as Congress passed it rather than to improper regulations that misinterpreted the law," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the Democracy 21 campaign watchdog group and part of the legal team that brought the lawsuit.
The judge ordered the FEC to write new rules governing key aspects of fund raising and spending, including when candidates and outside parties can coordinate activities and how far the law goes in banning corporate, union and unlimited "soft money" donations. She also ordered the commission to take a step it had resisted: regulating at least some political activity conducted over the Internet.
FEC Chairman Bradley Smith said he wanted the agency to appeal, and the commission's No. 2 member, Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, said an appeal was likely. They were uncertain when the six-member commission would vote on it.
Weintraub said it was her position that the current rules would remain in effect while the commission worked to comply with the ruling, and Smith agreed that the ruling seemed to say that. Smith said the might seek a stay of the ruling anyway to alleviate any uncertainty and avoid having to adopt new rules while the case was pending.
"For two years now everybody has been relying on these regulations," said Laurence E. Gold, an attorney for the AFL-CIO, the Democratic-leaning America Coming Together and other groups. "It serves absolutely no public purpose to throw everything out and leave everyone in uncertainty as to what the law is, and I don't think she did that."
Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., sued the FEC in October 2002 but the case was delayed until the Supreme Court upheld the law, which broadly banned soft money from presidential and congressional elections.
The judge overturned several FEC rules, including those that:
— Imposed a narrow test to determine whether a lawmaker was violating the soft money solicitation ban. Under the FEC rules, the only way a federal candidate or officeholder could violate the solicitation ban would be by explicitly asking for soft money.
— Exempted Internet ads from rules on coordination among interest groups, federal candidates and national party committees.
— Exempted an entire class of tax-exempt organizations from a ban on the use of corporate or union money for ads mentioning presidential or congressional candidates within a month before a primary or two months before a general election.
— Defined coordination only as agreement between a spender and candidate or party.
— Excluded coordinated ads aired more than 120 days before an election.