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High Court Loosens Restrictions on Issue Ads

The Supreme Court today narrowly agreed that an anti-abortion rights group had a constitutional right to air campaign-style ads during federally imposed blackout periods in the weeks before a Senate election.

In one of its final decisions of the term, the high court ruled 5-4 in favor of Wisconsin Right to Life, an anti-abortion rights group that filed a suit against the Federal Election Commission in July 2004 questioning the “electioneering communications” provisions of 2002’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The group had originally asked a federal court on July 26, 2004, to temporarily lift the ban so it could run ads protesting Wisconsin Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl’s participation in the filibusters of federal judges.

Under BCRA, labor unions and interest groups such as Wisconsin Right to Life were banned from running certain issue ads within 60 days of a general election and 30 days before a primary. Soon after BCRA’s passage, now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others fought the blackout period and other ad curbs all the way to the Supreme Court. The high court ultimately upheld the ban.

With today’s ruling, a host of interest groups will be able to run ads attacking House, Senate and presidential candidates in the days leading up to an election.

The decision was the first major election law case decided by the John Roberts-led Supreme Court.

— Matthew Murray