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U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments in challenge to Missouri limits on political contributions

October 04, 1999
By: Michael Patrick Carney
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri brings to the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday an historic case that is likely to shape continuing efforts to regulate the role of big money in American political campaigns.

"It will be a key decision and I think both sides have focused in on it," said Kent Cooper, a former assistant staff director for the Federal Elections Commission official. Cooper now operates an on-line repository of federal contribution data.

"Whether it can be paralleled to the federal level I don't know," Cooper said. "But if the court says that the limit is too restrictive, then people may raise questions about the federal limit."

The state is asking the Supreme Court to uphold a state law that imposes limits on how much any one person or organization can contribute to a political campaign.

For statewide races, the limit now sits at $1,075 for statewide races, $525 for state Senate races and $275 for state House races.

Those contribution limits were struck down by a federal appeals court.

In a 1976 case, Buckley vs. Valeo, the high court upheld a $1,000 limit on contributions to federal candidates. In that case, the justices also found Congressionally imposed limits on spending unconstitutional.

If Missouri loses, donors will be able to give unlimited donations to political candidates within the state, and perhaps throughout the nation.

Brenda Wright, a lawyer with the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston, Mass., said that would be a "major setback and very damaging to campaign reform efforts nationwide."

Her organization actively seeks increased limits on the power of money in politics.

"Reformers and the lower courts are looking to the court for guidance," Wright said.

The suit grew out of the 1998 Republican primary for State Auditor and the campaign of an unsuccessful GOP primary candidate Zev Fredman, a University City accountant. He and Bevis Schock, a St. Louis lawyer and treasurer of a local political action committee, have been friends since the early 1990s.

The Republican activists would often get together at political events or to watch the returns come in on election night.

Fredman wanted to run for office. Schock wanted standing to challenge the state law.

Fredman recalls, "Bevis asked me: 'Would you be willing to consider a run now and be willing to challenge the law?'"

The 1984 graduate of Washington University was willing. The race for State Auditor was on -- and so was a constitutional contest.

Fredman acknowledges that they entered the race with an agenda -- getting the limits overturned. But Fredman said that he had to challenge the laws to run.

They fashioned a campaign plan built on a small number of large donations because Fredman said wanted to keep working at Fredman Brothers Furniture, the family business started by his great-uncles and grandfather.

State law made their strategy illegal.

The two men sued in federal district court. They claimed the law violated the free-speech rights of candidates and donors, but the court upheld the law.

"What happened, by not winning the injunction, I put my campaign on ice," Fredman said. "It was going to cost a lot of money and I could not afford to run it in drips and drabs."

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Fredman several weeks before the August 1998 primary, but he managed to raise only $5,000 and went on to lose the nomination to Charles Pierce, the deputy state auditor who had been endorsed by the GOP establishment.

The national and state Republican Party organizations have filed a brief in support of Shrink and Fredman.

"It would have been a hard road to hoe with the limits removed," Fredman said. "With those limits in place I didn't stand a chance to run a credible race without campaign funds."

Letting bygones be bygones, Fredman gave $1,000 to Pierce, the Republican candidate who was defeated in the general election.

Fredman says the crux of his argument is that campaign contribution limits, by limiting both the ability of unknown candidates to raise money and their right to free speech, do more harm than good.

Supporters of limits on donations don't agree, and will argue the real free-speech issue in Nixon vs. Shrink Missouri Government PAC is whether most political speech should be controlled by big donors.

They want to guarantee that government does not, as Maggie Thurman, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Democratic Party said, "turn into an auction."

"Congress and state legislatures should be free to set reasonable contribution limits to protect the public from the corrupting effects of unlimited donations to candidates and parties," said U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc. He has proposed stricter federal contribution limits.

The National Voting Rights Institute's Wright wrote one of the fifteen amicus briefs filed with the high court. She is representing the interests of election officials in 18 states with laws similar to Missouri. The U.S. Solicitor General, voicing concerns that the case could be used to overturn federal limits, has filed a brief and will use 10 of Missouri's 30 minutes to urge the court to uphold the limits.

Lawyers for Fredman and Shrink Missouri Government PAC will argue that the state failed to show any real link between big money and corruption.

"Why would I sell out my moral principles so that I could be State Auditor?" Fredman asked. "There is no evidence that you are a more pure candidate if you raise money in the way they would like you to."

"We don't think it is necessary to show evidence of corruption, the essence is the perception of corruption," said Scott Holste, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. "The real question is the perception of the undue influence of money."

Nixon flew to Washington, D.C., last Thursday and has been honing his arguments at the office of National Association of Attorneys General, Holste said.

This will be the two-term Democrat's second appearance before the high court. He lost in his first case, a 1995 death row challenge.

"This is the last stop for each side," said Holste. "If the court overrules this then there are no limits."

Fredman said nothing would make him happier.