Court Split On Campaign Limits

It's been 23 years since the Supreme Court upheld the $1,000 limit on what individuals can give presidential and congressional candidates.

It was one of the high court's post-Watergate reforms, reports CBS News Correspondent Stephanie Lambidakis. But now the court is hinting the reforms haven't worked.

On Tuesday, the justices debated the virtues and vices of limiting political spending, a form of speech, to deter corruption. Congress will take up a similar debate next week.

While one justice said he assumed big contributors "get something extraordinary in return," another extolled a wealthy person's right "to participate in the democratic process as fully as he is able."

With members of Congress among the courtroom crowd, the court probed the constitutionality of Missouri's contribution limits in state races. The justices' eventual decision, expected by late June, likely will affect limits imposed for federal elections and races in two-thirds of the states.

The vote could be very close. Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and John Paul Stevens seemed most sympathetic to allowing limits.

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Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia seemed least sympathetic. In previous writings, Justice Clarence Thomas supported overturning the court's 1976 decision to uphold contribution limits.

The decision, as in many of the court's most divisive cases, could hinge on the votes of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy.

O'Connor voiced some doubts about Missouri's purpose -- fighting corruption or the perception of corruption. If someone makes a donation in the hope a candidate, if elected, "will pay attention to me, does that give rise to enough of a negativ picture to justify state regulation?" she asked.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon answered no, but Souter suggested that large contributions always raise the possibility of corruption.

"Most people assume -- I do, certainly -- that someone making an extraordinarily large contribution is going to get something extraordinary in return," Souter said.

Breyer said that if a rich man contributed $15 million, "the public might think he owns that candidate." But Scalia countered by suggesting a wealthy person has a right to contribute "as fully as he is able."

Nixon was joined by Solicitor General Seth Waxman, arguing for the Clinton administration, in urging the justices to reinstate Missouri's limits. The limits were struck down as violations of the free-speech rights of candidates and contributors alike.

"If a contribution is speech, it's hard to say speech is a subversion of the political process," Kennedy told Waxman. But the government lawyer responded, "The potential for corruption comes from the nonspeech element of the large contribution."

In the end, it will boil down to this argument: Are the millions of dollars being raised a corrupting influence in American politics, or an exercise in free speech?