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Court Refuses to Get Involved In Campaign Spending Lawsuit

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post

The Supreme Court Monday refused to take up the controversial issue of campaign spending limits, quashing what proponents of campaign finance reform saw as their best hope in years of reducing the influence of money in politics.

The justices turned down an appeal from Cincinnati involving an ordinance that capped the amount city council candidates could spend trying to get elected, but that was struck down by a lower federal court as unconstitutional. The city's appeal was supported by 26 states and had galvanized those who say the exorbitant amounts of money spent nationwide undermine public trust in democracy.

As the debate has raged about whether wealthy interests exert disproportionate influence over campaigns, numerous public interest groups and state attorneys general pointed to the Cincinnati case as the best vehicle for persuading the justices to allow new government regulation of election spending.

Cincinnati and other officials had wanted the court to use the case to reverse the influential 1976 decision that equated spending money with free speech and said government limits on expenditures violated an individual's First Amendment right to free speech. That ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo has been blamed for rising campaign costs and abuse, and Monday's case was the first in 22 years to directly challenge the landmark decision.

Cincinnati argued that the reality of late-1990s politics justifies governmental restrictions on campaign expenditures that may not have been foreseen when the high court last ruled on the matter in 1976.

"Unlimited spending has seriously undermined public confidence in our electoral process and in our democratic institutions," Cincinnati officials told the justices. "It has presented an increased threat of actual corruption as large contributors dominate the financing of public election campaigns."

The states that joined Cincinnati in its appeal added separately that fund-raising today dominates the work of elected officials and that "television sound bites have replaced comprehensive discussions of issues."