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Profile: Wisconsin Right to Life

a.k.a. WRTL

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Wisconsin Right to Life was a participant or observer in the following events:

Wisconsin Right to Life logo.Wisconsin Right to Life logo. [Source: Dane101 (.com)]After the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), also known as the McCain-Feingold law after its original sponsors, and the 2003 McConnell Supreme Court decision that upheld the law (see December 10, 2003), corporations and labor unions are prohibited from airing ads that attack candidates but avoid specific language that turns the ads from general commercials into “campaign” ads within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a federal election. Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) comes to anti-abortion and anti-campaign finance lawyer James Bopp Jr. (see November 1980 and After) with a dilemma. The WRTL wants to run ads attacking Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), a powerful advocate of abortion rights, for his record of opposing President Bush’s judicial nominees. It intends to use the ads as campaign attack ads against Feingold, but skirt the BCRA’s restrictions by not specifically discouraging votes for him, thereby giving the appearance of “issue” ads and thusly not running afoul of the BCRA. Bopp is worried that the McConnell decision, just rendered, would make the Court reluctant to reverse itself so quickly. Bopp knows that the McConnell decision was in response to a broad challenge to the BCRA that argued the law was unconstitutional in all circumstances. Bopp decides to challenge the BCRA on behalf of the WRTL on narrower grounds—to argue that the specific application of the BCRA in this instance would violate the group’s First Amendment rights. He decides not to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) because of that agency’s notoriously slow response time, but instead files a preemptive challenge in court objecting to the BCRA’s ban on “issue advertisements” in the weeks before elections. Bopp is encouraged by the prospects of a court challenge that may wend its way to the Supreme Court, as the “swing” vote in McConnell was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been succeeded by the more conservative Samuel Alito (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006). [New Yorker, 5/21/2012] Bopp will prove to be correct, as the Supreme Court will find in WRTL’s favor (see June 25, 2007).

Entity Tags: Russell D. Feingold, Federal Election Commission, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, George W. Bush, Samuel Alito, James Bopp, Jr, Wisconsin Right to Life, US Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2004 Elections

The Supreme Court, ruling in the Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission case, finds that some political advertisements can be exempted from the “electioneering communications” provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act (see March 27, 2002). The case stems from attempts by an anti-abortion advocacy group, Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL), to run ads asking viewers to contact their senators and urge them to oppose filibusters of judicial nominees. WRTL tried to run its ads during the 30 and 60-day “blackout” periods before the upcoming 2004 elections, but because it accepted corporate contributions and was itself incorporated, the McCain-Feingold restrictions prevented the ads from running. WRTL argued that the ads were not targeting candidates, but were strictly issue-related (see Mid-2004 and After). The case was initially dismissed, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the lower courts. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) argued that the ads were intended to influence US Senate elections in Wisconsin, and thusly should be regulated by McCain-Feingold. A district court disagreed, ruling against the FEC and finding that the ads were “protected speech” (see January 30, 1976), though it limited its findings solely to the WRTL ads and specified that its ruling was not to apply to other cases. The FEC appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision finds that the district court’s ruling is valid. Chief Justice John Roberts writes the majority opinion, which establishes broad exemptions for advertisements that could be “reasonably” interpreted as being about legislative issues and not directed on behalf of, or against, a particular candidate. As long as “issue ads” do not contain the “functional equivalent” of express advocacy for or against a candidate, the Roberts opinion holds, and the advertisements are legal. The ads involve “core political speech” that is protected by the First Amendment, Roberts finds: “We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship.” Justice David Souter writes the dissenting opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas write a concurring opinion that joins them with Roberts and the other two conservative justices, but in their concurrence, they say they would overturn the McCain-Feingold law in its entirety. [Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 6/26/2007; FindLaw, 2011; National Public Radio, 2012; Oyez (.org), 7/1/2012] Roberts is careful in the language of his majority opinion, writing that “the First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.” He does not directly advocate for the overturning of the McCain-Feingold law, but referring to the 2003 McConnell decision that upheld the law (see December 10, 2003), he writes, “We have no occasion to revisit that determination today.” In 2012, reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write of Roberts’s use of the word “today,” “To those who know the language of the Court, the Chief Justice was all but announcing that five justices would soon declare the McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012] Toobin is referring to the 2010 Citizens United decision that will overturn most of the law (see January 21, 2010).

Entity Tags: John G. Roberts, Jr, Clarence Thomas, David Souter, Antonin Scalia, Federal Election Commission, Wisconsin Right to Life, US Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A federal appeals court strikes down a Wisconsin law limiting how much a single person can donate to independent political action committees, or PACs. The ruling is made in favor of a lawsuit filed by Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL), which sued in August 2011 just before a round of recall elections targeting nine state senators. The courts issued a temporary injunction on the law, and the appeals court makes the repeal permanent. Before the ruling, Wisconsin law mandated that individuals could give no more than $10,000 to a PAC. The court rules that such limitations restrict free speech. WRTL’s Barbara Lyons calls the ruling a “sweeping victory” that will allow the group to “significantly contribute to the state and national dialogue on speech and elections.” But Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign disagrees, saying that the ruling renders candidates almost irrelevant as special interest groups and their money become dominant in campaigns: “I’m not sure that very many people will notice a difference because money is flowing so freely in Wisconsin politics,” he says. “There’s no shortage of channels through which special interest funds can flow.” The court cites the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited contributions to campaign organizations by corporate and union donors (see January 21, 2010), as the basis for its ruling. Judge Diane Sykes writes in the majority opinion: ”Citizens United held that independent expenditures do not pose a threat of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption, which is the only governmental interest strong enough to justify restrictions on political speech. Accordingly, applying the $10,000 aggregate annual cap to contributions made to organizations engaged only in independent spending for political speech violates the First Amendment.” The ruling is expected to have a tremendous impact on recall elections scheduled for 2012, including the recall of Governor Scott Walker (R-WI), as groups both in support of and opposition to the recalls can spend large amounts of money on campaign advertising. [Associated Press, 12/11/2011; Think Progress, 12/13/2011] WRTL won a landmark Supreme Court case in 2007 that struck down restrictions on so-called “issue advertising” (see June 25, 2007), a ruling that directly impacted today’s court finding. Days later, the local Chippewa Herald will write an editorial criticizing the ruling. The editorial specifies the “dialogue” that WRTL’s Lyons means “a heavy rotation of television and radio ads, phone calls, and direct-mail pieces.” WRTL’s purpose in its electioneering is fairly transparent, the Herald states, but many of the special interest groups involved in such electioneering are not transparent at all. “Do we want our campaigns to be about what the candidates stand for—heard directly from them—or about issue ads where candidates are either supported or attacked through a thinly veiled message urging people to contact a particular candidate?” The Herald notes that much of the $44 million spent on the state senate recalls “came from groups not subject to the state campaign contribution limit,” and few Wisconsin citizens know who those groups are. “The courts have ruled that political contributions and campaign spending is a First Amendment right,” the Herald states. “But those contributions and spending should not be done in secret or through a maze of groups and organizations that operate like legal money launderers.” The Herald advocates “complete disclosure” to “ensure openness and a clean and healthy democracy.” [Chippewa Herald, 12/14/2011]

Entity Tags: Chippewa Herald, Wisconsin Right to Life, Barbara Lyons, Mike McCabe, Scott Kevin Walker, Diane Sykes

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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