Court of Last Resort for Altering Fund-Raising? If Supreme Court Takes New Cases, It May Signal Justices' Desire to Review Groundwork for How Politicians Raise and Spend Money.; Campaign Finance

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Remember the Lincoln Bedroom controversy? How about Al Gore raising funds in a Buddhist temple? Or Chinese agents seeking to buy influence among American politicians?

A distant memory, all.

After what the nation's been through this year with Monica Lewinsky, it is hard to imagine a mere campaign-finance scandal eliciting anything more than a protracted yawn. Here's proof: The election money fiasco of 1996 wasn't enough to motivate Congress to pass even a watered-down reform package two years later. And Attorney General Janet Reno, mired in arcane election-law legalese, seems perpetually reluctant to appoint a special counsel to get to the bottom of questionable White House and congressional fund-raising. But campaign-finance reform isn't dead. It's simply taking a different route through Washington. Now it is the US Supreme Court's turn. The justices are considering taking up two cases that could facilitate a rewrite of its landmark decision of 1976 that laid the groundwork for the way politicians raise and spend campaign money. An announcement of whether the court will hear one, both, or none of the cases is expected soon, perhaps as early as today. One case is a Cincinnati ordinance that limits to $140,000 the amount a city council candidate can spend in a campaign. The other is an Arkansas state law that restricts donors from contributing more than $300 to a statewide candidate and $100 to a local candidate. Both laws were struck down as unconstitutional by federal appeals courts. What both laws were attempting to do, in different ways, was limit the potential influence of special-interest money on candidates and elected officials. Free speech violation? But appeals court judges decided they went too far, abridging the free-speech rights of candidates to spend as much as they want to win election in Cincinnati, or violating the rights of contributors in Arkansas to support their candidates with large political contributions. "There are going to be times when people can't get their views across unless they step up and put their money where their mouth is. What's wrong with that?" asks Bob Smith, the Little Rock lawyer who successfully challenged the Arkansas law and is urging the Supreme Court not to take his case. "Telling people that they can't spend money for their own candidacy is telling them that they can't campaign on their own behalf, and that is the clearest violation of the First Amendment imaginable," says Michael Carvin, a Washington lawyer who is urging the high court to allow the appeals decision in the Cincinnati case to stand. The appeals courts went too far in both cases, reform advocates say. Restrictions imposed by appeals panels in the sixth and 10th circuits have significantly eroded the ability of state and local officials to enact meaningful campaign-finance reform, they charge. In the absence of campaign contribution and/or spending limits, the process turns into a free-for-all with the spoils going to the highest bidder without regard to the best-qualified candidate, advocates say. …