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Supreme Court takes up campaign finance issue ad case

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take a case from a Wisconsin pro-life group that could determine whether issue advertisements can air in the weeks leading up to an election.

The case involves Wisconsin Right to Life, which produced radio and television ads in 2004 asking citizens to urge Wisconsin’s two senators — Democrats Russell Feingold and Herb Kohl — to oppose filibusters on President Bush’s judicial nominees. Although the ads did not mention the election, they nonetheless ran afoul of federal campaign finance law because Feingold was up for re-election.

The law — known formally as the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act but better known as “McCain-Feingold” — bars labor unions and corporations from including a candidate’s name in ads 30 days before a primary election and 60 days prior to a general election. It has been applied to non-profits such as Wisconsin Right to Life.

The pro-life group filed suit after pulling the ads in 2004. It is not challenging the entire law, but only the pertinent portion. A three-judge panel for the District of Columbia circuit court issued a 2-1 decision in December siding with Wisconsin Right to Life. The Federal Election Commission, which is defending the law, subsequently filed an appeal with the Supreme Court; Wisconsin Right to Life also asked the high court to hear the case.

Pro-family groups are watching the case closely. The Supreme Court made its announcement about the case Jan. 19.

“Wisconsin Right to Life is delighted that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up our grassroots lobbying challenge to the McCain-Feingold law,” Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, said in a statement. “… We believe it is important to have a Supreme Court decision which will be binding on the FEC and which will give guidance to those groups that want to petition the government using grassroots lobbying broadcast ads.”

The Supreme Court did not set a date for oral arguments, but Lyons said she expects them to be held April 25. It won’t be the first time the high court has heard the case. In January 2006 the Supreme Court vacated a 2005 decision by the same D.C. appeals court panel that had gone against Wisconsin Right to Life. The panel had based its decision on a 2003 ruling by the Supreme Court upholding the McCain-Feingold law. But the high court said in January 2006 that it upheld the law in 2003 “against a facial challenge” but that its ruling “did not purport to resolve future as-applied challenges.” The Wisconsin Right to Life case is an “as-applied challenge.”

The case is Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission.
Compiled by Michael Foust with reporting by Tom Strode.

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