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Analysis: Lines drawn as campaign finance case nears

  • Story Highlights
  • Group supporting current campaign finance regulations has urged protests
  • ACLU, NRA are among disparate groups calling for nonprofits to speak out
  • Ex-FEC counsel: Political donation landscape in coming years is uncertain
  • Finance reform efforts have fallen off as more pressing issues emerged
By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The campaign finance reform case being argued Wednesday at the Supreme Court is about the tension in federal elections between free speech and government regulation .

Theodore Olson will argue against what he calls "incomprehensible" regulations in current law.

But the debate really centers on politics and the power of one's message, so it is no surprise campaigns are being launched on both sides. Public Citizen, which supports current regulations curbing corporate influence, has urged protests on the court steps when the case is argued. The Washington-based group has launched to warn voters they will be steamrolled if corporations prevail.

"Overturning these well-established laws would turn our elections into free-for-alls with massive corporate and union spending," said David Arkush of Public Citizen, "and would make officeholders beholden to the deep pockets that promote them."

On the other side are groups like the ACLU and the National Rifle Association, now best buddies in their call for nonprofit corporations to speak out.

"For like-minded individuals lacking great wealth, pooling their donations to fund a political message is, in a real sense, the only way for them to find meaningful voice in the marketplace of ideas," the NRA said in a brief to the high court. "There is nothing pernicious, problematic or distorting about individuals banding together in this fashion to express shared political values and make themselves heard."

Other interested parties include wealthy, politically active donors -- such as liberal financier George Soros and moderate businessman and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who have spent vast sums of their own money to back political causes or fund their own campaigns for office. Critics accuse regulators at the Federal Election Commission for a generally lax enforcement stance, particularly for independent advocacy groups. Lawrence Noble, a former FEC counsel who now helps private clients navigate the spending minefield, noted wide legal uncertainty about the political donation landscape in coming years.

Theodore Olson, who will argue for a conservative group that filed the appeal now before the Supreme Court, said the law was a mishmash of "incomprehensible" regulations. He said groups like General Electric (which owns NBC News), National Public Radio, and liberal financier George Soros (who often privately funds his political projects) could air films critical of one political candidate in the name of informing the American people, but his clients can't, because of the perceived critical tone of the documentary they produced attacking then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

"If it's all negative it can be prohibited, and it's a felony," he said. "Or if it's all favorable, you can go to jail. But if you did half and half, you wouldn't" be sanctioned.

Despite McCain-Feingold, political observers note Congress has since been less than eager to continue election spending reforms. President Obama during the 2008 campaign said, "The FEC needs to be strengthened," especially in its enforcement powers -- but reform efforts have barely cause a ripple as congressional leaders grapple with more pressing issues, such as overhauling health care.

And three Republicans appointed in the past year to the six-member FEC have generally voted as a group to resist enforcement actions. That prompted two Democratic commissioners to accuse their counterparts of "a refusal to enforce the law."

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