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Court to rule on campaign finance, 3 other cases

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to consider the constitutionality of the “millionaire’s amendment” in federal campaign finance law — a part of the 2002 reform law that relaxes the limits on raising money by federal candidates running against wealthy, self-financed candidates.  The case is Davis v. Federal Election Commission (07-320).  The case is an appeal, rather than a discretionary petition, and the Court order said it would consider whether it has jurisdiction over the case when it holds a hearing.  There is a significant jurisdictional issue in the case. The Court’s hearing is likely to be in April.

The Court also agreed to rule on three other cases, including a significant new dispute over rights to confront witnesses against an accused individual, a dispute over successive lawsuits involving the same legal claim, and a controversy over whether a public employee can claim discrimination when that employee is a “class of one” — that is, the alleged bias is aimed only at that individual, but not because of that person’s race, gender or religion.

The “millionaire’s amendment” issue is raised by a self-financed candidate, Jack Davis, a defeated Democratic nominee for Congress from New York’s 26th District.  He contends that the amendment was beyond Congress’ power. Since campaign finance limits must be based upon an attempt to end corruption in politics, or at least to curb the appearance of corruption, the appeal argues, Congress cannot attempt to equalize political resources among candidates because one who uses his own money to pay for a campaign is not corrupting anyone or anything.

The constitutionality of the amendment was challenged in the Supreme Court in the first round of lawsuits against the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, but the Supreme Court found in 2003 that the challengers did not have “standing” to contest that provision.

One of the issues that the Supreme Court will confront when it takes up the case at a hearing is whether Davis had a right to sue — that is, whether he had “standing.”  The Federal Election Commission, in opposing his appeal, argued that he lacked any proof of injury because the candidate who ran against him in 2006 — Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds — did not take advantage of the amendment to raise more money or to coordinate his spending with his political party, the Republican Party.

The amendment is triggered when a self-financed candidate intends to spend more than $350,000 in personal funds on a campaign. The opponent then can gather contributions up to three times the usual limit on campaign contributions, may receive donations from individuals who have already reached the usual limit of their annual contributions, and may coordinate with their political party to contribute more than it otherwise could legally.

The Confrontation Clause case to be heard — Giles v. California (07-6053) — tests whether an accused person has a right to bar the testimony of a witness who is unavailable for trial, if the accused caused that absence by killing her — but did not do so with the specific aim of silencing the witness.  There is a widespread dispute among lower courts on the issue of whether the so-called “forfeiture by wrongdoing rule” — a principle that dates from an 1879 Supreme Court decision, Reynolds v. U.S. The case the Court plans to hear involves a Los Angeles man, Dwayne Giles, who shot his former girlfriend to death, but insisted it was in self-defense and thus he did not intend her to die. His lawyers objected to the use at his trial of the testimony of a Los Angeles police officer because the officer was relaying statements by an absent witnesss — the girlfriend, whom the officer had interviewed three weeks before the shooting. The testimony was aimed at showing that Giles had a history of domestic violence.

Another case granted by the Court asks it to clarify when an individual is barred from filing a lawsuit because someone with similar interests pursued the claim in court before.  The issue is whether a second lawsuit on a public law question is barred because of “virtual representation” –someone else who sued earlier on the same or similar point and supposedly adequately represented others interested in the legal issue. The specific dispute in the case is whether the second case is barred if the person who sued had no legal tie to those involved in the first case, and had no notice of the earlier case.  The dispute grows out of successive lawsuits by two restorers of antique aircraft, both of whom sued under the Freedom of Information Act for access to government files including plans for a vintage 1930s aircraft, the F-45.  Both litigants are members of the Antique Aircraft Association (one of them is executive director), and one of them owns one of the only two F-45s still in existence; the two want to work together to restore the plane.

In the fourth case granted review (Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 07-474) on the rights of federal employees who claim that, although they were not the member of a group protected against discrimination, they should be allowed to claim discriminated that was aimed at them alone. It involves a woman born in India whohad repeated difficulty with her superior in the state agriculture department, and ultimately was laid off.  The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that the woman, Anup Engquist, could not sue under the class-of-one theory because that does not apply to public employment, saying that public employees’ job rights “should not be as expansive as the rights of ordinary citizens.”  The appeal to the Supreme Court raised other issues, but the Court limited its grant to the class-of-one question.

Presumably, all four cases granted Friday will be heard in April — a calendar that is not yet full.