Spin Cycles

In November 1996, Amendment 15 got more votes than any other measure or candidate on the Colorado ballot. Voters approved by a two-to-one margin the package of campaign-finance reforms, which for the first time placed limits on the amount individuals and political action committees can give to candidates for state office.

Since that vote of confidence, however, it's been a bumpy ride for Amendment 15. Repeating a scenario already played out in three other states, politicians and political organizations are suing the state in an effort to overturn the measure. In a trial under way in U.S. District Court, those groups are claiming that the limits Amendment 15 places on campaign donations violate their constitutional right to freedom of speech.

"It did get 66 percent of the vote," says Tim Tymkovich, the former state solicitor general who's been hired to fight the measure on behalf of the Colorado Republican Party. "But 66 percent of the people can't trump the First Amendment."

Three suits naming a total of 24 plaintiffs were filed against Amendment 15 after the election. Those actions have since been combined, and the battlefield has been narrowed to the courtroom of federal district judge Daniel Sparr.

On one side of Sparr's courtroom are a hodgepodge of conservative Republicans--along with one lone Democrat and an array of special-interest groups that includes the left-leaning Colorado Education Association--who are challenging the state's right to limit campaign cash. They're represented by Tymkovich and Ed Ramey, a local lawyer known for his First Amendment work. The Colorado Right to Life PAC has retained its own counsel: well-known Indiana attorney James Bopp Jr., who has represented pro-life groups in similar trials across the country.

On the other side of Sparr's courtroom are the supporters of Amendment 15: lead defense attorney Elizabeth Weishaupl of the Colorado Attorney General's Office, and Denver lawyer Bob Hill, who's being paid by Colorado Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

The case has received almost no media coverage and has been painfully dry at times. Lawyer Ramey recalls that during the taking of one deposition before trial, the testimony got so tiresome it actually drove the official recorder to tears. "She asked if we could take a break, and I asked if it would be okay to do one more question, and she just broke down crying," Ramey says. "I've never seen that before."

But the trial has had its moments. The groups challenging Amendment 15 have seen their case sidetracked by embarrassing revelations about the laundering of campaign cash by politicians--including at least two of the plaintiffs. Evidence was presented to show how tobacco money has snaked its way into politicians' pockets. The Republican state party chairman called the leader of the Denver GOP a liar under oath. Perennial far-right congressional candidate Pat Miller accused a deputy attorney general of calling her a liar--and then heard Sparr rule that she had presented "no credible evidence" in her testimony. A former CIA analyst was even asked who killed JFK.

The trial, currently in recess, is expected to resume this week. Whatever the outcome, both sides say the case is likely headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Already it has provided a fascinating--and farcical--glimpse at Colorado politics.

Attorneys for both sides in the case have presented a Byzantine array of legal arguments. But in the end, the case will come down to a legally intriguing exercise: Judge Sparr's single-minded attempt to read the minds of Colorado voters.

Sparr has said from the bench that the crux of the case will be what voters were thinking when they passed Amendment 15. If, as Tymkovich asserts, voters wanted to limit the influence of PACs or corporations, the measure is unconstitutional, because those groups enjoy the same right to speech as individual citizens. If, as defense lawyers argue, voters intended to limit "corrupting influences" or the appearance of corruption, the monetary limits of Amendment 15 might be allowed.

As Sparr has begun trying to get inside the heads of voters, James Bopp has been laboring to get inside Sparr's--with varying degrees of success.

Bopp is no stranger to big court cases. He was the lawyer who spearheaded the "Baby Doe" case in 1982, when the parents of a severely disabled infant decided to let the baby die rather than have surgeons remove a blockage in the child's throat. Bopp took the hospital to court to force doctors to intervene, and the case sparked the federal Child Abuse and Prevention Act of 1984, which requires hospitals to provide treatment regardless of how disabled a child may be. Bopp argued that doctors have no business making judgments about the quality of an infant's life.

Bopp is now general counsel to the National Right to Life Committee and regularly works First Amendment cases in which he battles groups such as Common Cause in court--and in the media. He recently appeared on Court TV to talk about another campaign-finance case currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and he's also battling assisted-suicide laws in Oregon and New York. As in Colorado, where he has joined forces with Republicans for Choice, Bopp has shown a willingness to work with those with whom he disagrees when they have a common goal. During last year's campaign-finance hearings before Congress, he led a coalition that included Emily's List--a national PAC that supports pro-choice female candidates--in an effort to block subpoenas from Tennessee senator Fred Thompson's inquiry into fundraising practices.

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Scott C. Yates