Court Ruling Sparks Campaign Reform Debate

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The U.S. Supreme Court's backing Wednesday of broad campaign finance restrictions has provoked new debate among Nevadans on whether the promise of cleaning up money in politics outweighs limiting political speech.

In 5-4 rulings, the justices upheld key parts of the McCain-Feingold law that Congress passed last year. The law - the biggest change in campaign finance in almost 30 years - forbids national political parties and federal candidates from raising and spending "soft money," largely unregulated sums donated by organized labor, corporations and interest groups that are not subject to limits.

The court also backed the law's restrictions on election-season advertising by special interest groups, "issue ads" that have flooded the airwaves often in attacks on candidates.

The case "raised a question of free speech versus the impact of soft money on the political process," Nevada ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein said. "It was not a good ruling. It limits speech within the political process and we believe the more speech the better."

UNLV political science professor David Damore said it's to be expected that free speech advocates will attack the court's judgment. But Damore doubted the ruling is a significant blow to the First Amendment because it primarily affects moneyed organizations.

"In reality, this is not everybody's speech because the average person doesn't have a million dollars to buy those ads," he said. "Free speech has always been the trump card, but here the court said that clean elections might be an important thing, too."

Damore also said the law removes the biggest fear among incumbents: that special interests will flood the airwaves with attack ads as campaigns reach their climax. The law restricts such "issue ads" 60 days before an election.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who supported McCain-Feingold, applauded the court's decision and particularly the swing vote of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in favor of the law.

"If I could find Sandra Day O'Connor today, I'd give her a big hug," Reid said. "I think she was very courageous. She broke from the crowd and did what was right for the country."

"Corporate America should not own Congress and that's what it was coming to," Reid said of the influence wielded by company campaign donations. Organized labor and special interest groups also sink large sums into campaigns.

Richard Ziser, a Republican investor and Las Vegas political consultant who has announced a Senate candidacy against Reid, criticized the ruling, saying "it's the wrong decision in terms of people being able to spend their money as they see fit."

The court's ruling will have little effect on current campaigns, which have been operating under McCain-Feingold anyway, said Mike Slanker, a Las Vegas Republican consultant.

"The decision doesn't change anything we're doing," Slanker said. "We operated under the assumption it was going to be the law of the land until someone told us differently."