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U.S. Appeals Court Strikes Down Campaign Spending-Limit Law

By Lyle Denniston
The Baltimore Sun

In a case that President Clinton and campaign finance reform advocates hope will lead the Supreme Court to change its mind about spending ceilings, a federal appeals court struck down on Monday a Cincinnati mandatory ceilings law passed explicitly to put the justices to a test.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rebuffing the pleas of 24 states and a host of activist organizations who want to curb spending, said that all the arguments in favor of caps on campaign outlays have been rejected by the Supreme Court for more than 20 years.

The Cincinnati ordinance, challenged in court by a Republican City Council member who had spent more than the law allowed, set a ceiling of $140,000 on spending by a council candidate. That is about three times a council member's annual salary.

The City Council, although warned by its lawyers that the measure would run afoul of Supreme Court rulings, passed it anyway to "take the lead" in testing the issue.

In 1976, in a famous case known as Buckley vs. Valeo, and in several rulings since, the Supreme Court has declared that spending is a form of political speech, and it is unconstitutional under the First Amendment to try to limit it - when the spending is by the candidate, by independent supporters, by political action committees or by political parties.

But, in a closely orchestrated and still-widening campaign, proponents of spending limits have been trying to set the stage for a new Supreme Court look at the issue. The Cincinnati ordinance and the lawsuit over its validity have been the chosen vehicles for a new trip to the highest court.

The proponents believe that the failure of other attempts to cut the influence of money in politics in the years since 1976 will encourage the court to conclude that the goal can be met only by curbing spending directly. The court has upheld contribution limits, but advocates of spending limits say those clearly have not worked to remove the money taint.

Proponents did not expect to win in the lower courts, since only the Supreme Court can change its constitutional declarations.