WASHINGTON (BP)–Dodging a major free speech ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 23 sent a case that pits a Wisconsin pro-life group against the 2002 campaign finance reform law back to a lower court that previously had dismissed the case.
In its unsigned three-page opinion, the justices said the lower court was wrong in its interpretation of an earlier Supreme Court opinion.
The high court’s Jan. 23 ruling was issued just six days after justices heard oral arguments.
The case involves Wisconsin Right to Life’s challenge to a portion of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly referred to as “McCain-Feingold,” in reference to its sponsors. In the summer of 2004, the pro-life group ran radio and TV ads asking Wisconsin residents to contact Sens. Russell Feingold and Herb Kohl and tell them to oppose the filibustering of President Bush’s judicial nominees.
But because Feingold was up for re-election that year, and because the campaign finance reform law prevents such ads from airing immediately prior to an election, Wisconsin Right to Life was forced to take them off the air. The group sued, saying that the law, as applied to them, violated their free speech rights.
The campaign finance reform law bars labor unions and corporations from including a political candidate’s name in ads 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. The provision also has been applied to non-profit advocacy organizations, such as Wisconsin Right to Life.
The pro-life group argues that the ads are not designed to impact elections but instead to impact legislative issues.
In its ruling the Supreme Court vacated the opinion by the lower court and asked it to re-consider Wisconsin Right to Life’s arguments. Specifically, the justices said the lower court “misinterpreted the relevance” of a footnote in a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the campaign finance reform law.
“In upholding [the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] against a facial challenge, we did not purport to resolve future as-applied challenges,” the court wrote.
Wisconsin Right to Life Executive Director Barbara Lyons said she was “elated” with the ruling.
“Wisconsin Right to Life is asking for a grassroots lobbying exception to the McCain-Feingold law as long as the ads talk about a genuine issue before the U.S. Congress and do not mention an election,” Lyons said in a release. “The lower court became fixated on a footnote in the 2003 Supreme Court decision and concluded that there could be no ‘as applied’ challenges to McCain-Feingold. Fortunately, that obstacle is now removed and we look forward to the district court getting to the merits of the case.
“… We welcome with great excitement a proper review of the merits of our appeal and are optimistic that free speech will once again be recognized in the United States.”
The case easily could end up before the Supreme Court again, but the next time the court would include Samuel Alito, assuming he is confirmed by the Senate.