Jim Bopp's fight to liberate political money

No sooner had we noted that conservative attorney James Bopp seemed to be setting up to sue the Federal Election Commission over an anti-abortion, anti-Obama ad, we got this news: Bopp sued the FEC Friday over an anti-abortion, anti-Obama ad.

Only, it's not the National Right to Life Committee ad we were writing about.

Turns out the indefatigable Bopp also represents the Committee for Truth in Politics, recently formed by a North Carolina Republican operative. Bopp is suing to protect the group from any FEC enforcement actions that might prevent it from running its ads—even though the FEC hasn't done anything yet and isn't likely to take any action till after the election.

Bopp did essentially the same thing earlier this year on behalf of another group, a 527 called The Real Truth About Obama. That group has also targeted Obama's record on abortion, but its ads haven't run yet.

Bopp won't say whether it all ads up to a coordinated legal strategy. But the three simultaneous efforts hammer home his view of federal campaign finance laws: that they chill free speech if you have to ask permission from a slow-moving government agency, or get a preliminary injunction against the agency, before you air a political ad—or else face the threat of fines later.

"We have clients that want to do real things," he says. "There's all sorts of people out there that want to participate in our democracy ... They don't want to suffer a future investigation and enforcement action when the Constitution protects what they do."

Those who want to regulate political money, of course, see it differently. They say Bopp and his clients want to tear down the legal walls that keep big donors, corporations and undisclosed contributions from having undue electoral influence. And the legal walls are hardly rigid. The McCain-Feingold law made them stronger in 2002. But Bopp blew a new hole in them last year, as lawyer for Wisconsin Right To Life—just his latest of many victories.

Meanwhile, the Committee for Truth in Politics says in its lawsuit that it's got another hard-hitting ad to let loose. To quote from the ad:

It's tragic, but true. Two-thirds of all prisoners convicted of rape or sexual assault committed their crime against a child. Even worse, the average child predator exploits seven to two hundred victims in their lifetime. In the Illinois Senate, Barack Obama was the only member that voted to allow early release for convicted sexual abusers.

Besides the Committee for Truth in Politics, the other plaintiff in Bopp's most recent suit is Holly Lynn Koerber. According to the suit, she's a North Carolina resident who "reasonably fears that CTP will be silenced and she will be unable to continue receiving CTP's ads and materially-similar ads, all in violation of her First Amendment rights."

Koerber has experience in this. She also served as a plaintiff, along with the Republican Governors Association, in suing the North Carolina State Board of Elections in 2004. The plaintiff's filing identified her as vice-chair of the Pasquotank County Republican Party.

Bopp may be the nation's most experienced lawyer in challenging campaign finance laws. For 30 years, he's been general counsel to the National Right To Life Committee, which has spearheaded opposition to restrictions on political money. He's also a member of the Republican National Committee and counsel to Focus on the Family and the Indiana Republican Party.

Besides the three cases discussed here, Bopp also represents Citizens United in a lawsuit against the FEC. He lost in lower courts but has appealed to the Supreme Court. And he has other suits against state-level campaign finance agencies.

"I'm probably involved in 50 cases right now," he says, admitting that sometimes it's difficult to keep track of them all.

Expect more from Mr. Bopp.

This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

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