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The Supreme Court case brought by former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith captured the media spotlight outside the Court chamber on Tuesday. But inside it was the other argument of the day, involving campaign finance reform, that had the justices’ full attention. From the intense questioning of the justices during Randall v. Sorrell, the Court seems poised to reject the severe limitations on both campaign donations and spending that Vermont’s Legislature enacted in 1997. Candidates for legislative offices are restricted to spending as little as $2,500 in a campaign, while individual donations are capped at $200 in a two-year election cycle in some races. The law amounted to a frontal assault on the Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which held that government could limit campaign donations but not how much a candidate could spend. Expenditure limits would violate a candidate’s free speech rights, the Court said then. Driven by increasing concerns over the corrupting influence of campaign money, reform advocates had hoped the high court might be ready to reassess the Buckley dichotomy. But today that seemed unlikely; both the spending and the donation limits seemed too severe for the justices’ approval. None of the justices who asked questions Tuesday — including those who have accepted campaign reform measures before — appeared sympathetic toward Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, who defended the law. “Why aren’t these limits way too low?” asked Justice Stephen Breyer, who said the law ends up favoring incumbents, who may not need as much money to gain name recognition among voters. Justice David Souter, who also usually supports campaign limits, said a candidate who faces a primary fight “is going to be broke” by the time the campaign for a general election begins. “It’s very odd for a United States government to say �Enough speech,’” said Justice Antonin Scalia. “You’re constraining speech.” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. emphasized that voters who are upset about campaign money have the remedy of voting candidates out of office. Sorrell countered that the government had “core constitutional interests” in enacting the law, including keeping candidates and officeholders from the distraction of nearly constant fund raising. Though no Vermont officeholders have been prosecuted for corruption in recent years, he said the threat of corruption is “far from illusory.” The second case argued, Marshall v. Marshall, was the one that drew throngs of reporters and cameras to the Court. Smith (whose married name is Vickie Lynn Marshall) is embroiled in a dispute over the estate of her late husband, billionaire J. Howard Marshall. The one-time topless dancer was 26 when she married the 89-year-old Marshall in 1994, and when he died, a little more than a year later, his son Pierce went to Texas courts to contest her right to a share of the estate. At some point in the soap opera she declared bankruptcy in federal court, setting up a federal-state dispute over which court should have jurisdiction. With Smith watching demurely from the middle of the public seating, the justices debated the intricacies of probate law and estates, a topic that rarely gets the Court’s attention, since it is a field dominated by state law. But justices seemed sympathetic to the widow’s side of the case, with many of them suggesting that bankruptcy courts could have some role to play in probate disputes. After the hearing was over, Smith disappointed the broadcast media by skipping a press conference set for the marble plaza in front of the Court and instead speeding off in a sport utility vehicle with tinted windows.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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