Federal Court Stays Ruling on New Campaign Finance Law

A federal court Monday temporarily restored limits on political donations and advertising that it had struck down as unconstitutional, making 2004 candidates operate under the law passed by Congress last year until the Supreme Court (search) settles the matter.

The Justice Department and the law's sponsors had asked the three-judge panel handling the case to stay its entire May 2 ruling while the Supreme Court considers appeals. Interest groups, including the AFL-CIO (search) and the National Rifle Association (search), had asked the lower court to block only its ruling on political ad restrictions while appeals were pending.

The stay means national party committees and federal candidates can raise only "hard money" — limited contributions from individuals and political action committees — for the 2004 election. They cannot raise corporate and union contributions known as soft money, which came in five- and even six-figure amounts and were used by the parties for get-out-the-vote drives, overhead and issue ads often aired in locations with close congressional races.

The court initially had made its ruling effective immediately. It struck down several provisions, including the law's ban on soft-money contributions to national party committees. Sections it upheld included some restrictions on political ads by interest groups, a ban on the solicitation of soft money by federal officeholders and a prohibition on the use of party soft money for issue ads mentioning federal candidates.

Attorney James Bopp Jr. said his clients, including the National Right to Life (search) and the Club for Growth (search), planned to appeal the stay order to the federal appeals court in Washington. His clients are challenging the political ad restrictions and the law's ban on campaign contributions by minors; the court had struck down some ad restrictions and the minor ban as unconstitutional but put them back into effect when it suspended its decision.

"The court agrees these provisions strip us of our rights, but they're going to allow them to be enforced anyway," Bopp said. "That's just astonishing."

The government and the law's sponsors had argued that without a stay, candidates could have to live with three sets of rules: those in the law that took effect Nov. 6, the lower-court ruling and an eventual Supreme Court decision, which isn't expected for several months.

The lower court agreed, and also said the fact that many findings in its May 2 ruling were the result of 2-1 votes supported the arguments for a stay.

Several interest groups asked the court to stay the part of its ruling that upheld some of the law's political ad restrictions, arguing that it threw into doubt their ability to air lobbying ads targeting members of Congress to vote for or against legislation.

The court ruled unconstitutional a provision barring a range of interest groups, including those financed with corporate or union money, from airing ads mentioning federal candidates in their districts in the month before a primary and two months before a general election.

The judges upheld backup rules barring such groups from airing ads that promote, support, attack or oppose a candidate at any time.

The National Rifle Association asked the court to stay its decision upholding the backup rules. The NRA said that while it also opposed the 30-60 day restrictions, it preferred those for now because no federal election is imminent.

Within hours of the stay order, the NRA said it planned to air an ad in Arizona urging Republican Sen. John McCain to support legislation blocking lawsuits against gun dealers whose products are used in crimes. The ad also criticizes Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York for opposing the legislation. Schumer is seeking re-election in 2004, and the NRA said it believed it couldn't run the ad without a stay of the court's order.

"The gag is off for NRA," executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said. McCain, a lead sponsor of the campaign finance law, also is up for re-election next year.

The AFL-CIO and other groups, including National Right to Life, asked the court to block enforcement of both political ad provisions. Democrats last week filed an FEC complaint against the Club for Growth arguing that an ad it was running in South Dakota on President Bush's tax cut and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., violated the backup ban.