Citizen Bopp

By Novak, Viveca | The American Prospect, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Citizen Bopp


Novak, Viveca, The American Prospect


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Wedged up against the Illinois border on the banks of the Wabash River, Terre Haute, Indiana, has seen better days. Many factories have closed, and downtown has too many vacant storefronts. But there are signs of activity: Indiana State University has grown, the federal prison still provides reliable jobs--and the ten-lawyer litigation machine that occupies the offices of attorney James Bopp Jr. at the corner of 6th and Wabash is going full tilt.

Bopp is best known as the lawyer behind a case involving a 90-minute film made in 2008 attacking then--presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Bopp's suit ultimately resulted in the landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, in which the Supreme Court held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts such as the movie and its promotional ads were legitimate expressions of free speech and couldn't be limited by campaign-finance laws. The ruling overturned key restrictions on the use of corporate and union money in politics.

Over the past 30 years, Bopp has been at the forefront of litigation strategies that have reshaped campaign-finance law inexorably. Having helped pave the way for spending in the 2012 elections that's likely to exceed the 2008 level by several billions, Bopp is already well into the next phase of his crusade to topple as many of the state and federal limits on the role of money in politics as can be done in one man's lifetime. His targets include two of the few remaining bedrock principles of money-and-politics law: disclosure mandates and the prohibition against unions and corporations giving directly to candidates and parties. He's also juggling cases that go after dollar limits on contributions, attack elements of public-financing programs, and chisel away at other facets of the regulatory regime.

Though he's socially conservative and highly partisan, Bopp nonetheless is willing, whenever possible, to find common ground with liberals if it furthers his primary, driving goal: to make the words "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" an insurmountable barrier to regulating money in politics.

Tall, with blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, and, at 63, a full head of longish silver-white hair, Bopp is a third-generation native of Terre Haute; his wife Christine moved there at the age of two. He returned to town after attending law school at the University of Florida and a few years working in Indianapolis. Eager to be active in the conservative movement (he headed Indiana University's Young Americans for Freedom chapter), he soon became general counsel of the National Right to Life Committee. It was a natural evolution: He says he remembers his father, a physician, calling abortion an "unethical" practice. His dad's medical books lined a top shelf in the younger Bopp's room, and the boy would often pull down the one that intrigued him most, on fetology.

Bopp's early work for National Right to Life included filing an amicus brief that urged the Supreme Court to deny a hearing for a man who claimed that, because he'd offered to pay for an abortion for his girlfriend, he wasn't obligated to pay child support. Bopp was also active in two major eases in the early 1980s--defending Akron, Ohio's stringent abortion regulations, which the Supreme Court struck down, and challenging the right of a couple to reject potentially lifesaving medical treatment for their Down syndrome infant, known as Baby Doe, which led Congress to pass the so-called Baby Doe amendment that defined such conduct as child abuse.

Bopp's attention turned to campaign-finance law when the Federal Election Commission (FEC) began investigating the distribution of voter guides by the right-to-life group and others in the 1980 election. According to the commission's rules, such materials weren't supposed to "suggest or favor any position on the issues covered," because this would be tacit support of or opposition to a candidate. …

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