Supreme Court Reaffirms 'Soft Money' Ban

The Supreme Court on Tuesday reaffirmed a ban on unlimited contributions to political parties, rejecting a Republican Party appeal to undo a major aspect of campaign finance law.

Five months after the court ruled in favor of unlimited corporate and labor spending in federal elections, the justices on Tuesday turned down a request to consider ending the ban on the raising of soft money -- unlimited donations from corporations, unions and others -- by national party committees.

The soft money ban was a cornerstone of the 2002 congressional overhaul of federal campaign finance law.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have heard the Republicans' appeal.

The GOP said the Supreme Court's rationale in January for removing restrictions on corporate and union spending in federal elections should lead to a similar removal of the restriction on such fundraising by national political parties.

In March, federal judges in Washington said recent campaign finance rulings have left the political parties at a disadvantage relative to outside interest groups now that they are unencumbered by contribution or independent spending limits. But those judges said they lacked authority to overturn the soft money ban because the Supreme Court explicitly endorsed it in 2003.

The appeal by the Republican National Committee, RNC chairman Michael Steele, the California Republican Party and the San Diego GOP is being handled by attorney Theodore Olson, who successfully urged the court to overturn the ban on independent spending by corporations and unions. When he served as the Bush administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, Olson once defended the provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that was challenged. That law is named after two leading sponsors of the law, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Democrats have opposed the Republican effort, even though they, too, would be allowed to collect unlimited contributions.

The Obama administration urged the Supreme Court to leave the soft money ban in place. It drew a distinction between the Citizens United case decided in January, which involved independent spending by corporations, and the current challenge to the prohibition on contributions.

The RNC said it wants to raise and spend soft money to help elect GOP candidates to state offices, finance congressional redistricting efforts following the 2010 census, and fund lobbying efforts on federal legislation.

Before the law was enacted, the two parties were raising hundreds of millions in soft money, with rich individuals, businesses and unions giving a million or more.

When the Supreme Court upheld the "soft money" ban in 2003, it said that large contributions to the parties were used to buy access to elected officials.

The GOP said the high court's Citizens United decision in January changed everything. "In Citizens United, the court made clear that the only constitutionally adequate basis for prohibiting political speech is the prevention of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption -- arrangements that exchange dollars for political favors," the Republicans said in court papers.

Access is not corruption, they said.

The case is Republican National Committee v. FEC, 09-1287.