WASHINGTON — The nation’s best-known business lobby lost a U.S. Supreme Court appeal Tuesday, as the high court declined to enter a constitutional debate over use of campaign-style television advertisements in a state judicial election.
The court, without comment, turned aside a free-speech complaint from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The business lobby argued a Mississippi court violated its First Amendment right to free expression by blocking the chamber’s ads critical of three judicial candidates.
The chamber spent several hundred thousand dollars on last year’s state Supreme Court election in Mississippi, much of it for television ads that began airing three weeks before Election Day Nov. 7.
The ads were critical of some judges and supportive of others the chamber considered pro-business and aligned with its position on legal reforms.
The ads weren’t campaign ads in the strict sense, because they weren’t paid for by a candidate’s campaign and they didn’t specifically urge the election of one candidate over another.
The chamber aired similar “issue ads” last year in judicial elections in Ohio and Michigan.
A candidate the chamber opposed, Frank Vollor, won a court order stopping the ads on the Friday before the election. Two other judicial candidates opposed by the chamber then won similar orders over the weekend.
Mr. Vollor and the others claimed the ads broke corporate spending limits under Mississippi election law. The chamber claimed the court-imposed ad bans misinterpreted campaign-finance rules and violated the First Amendment.
In a complicated scramble involving several courthouses, permission to air the ads was off, then on, then off, then finally on again.
At the chamber’s request, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia intervened three times to let the ads air.
Months after the election, which Mr. Vollor lost, the chamber appealed the entire matter to the Supreme Court.
“Unless this court swiftly and authoritatively affirms First Amendment rights, future election-related advertising will be subject to a proliferation of” court-imposed ad bans, the business group argued.
Lawyers for Mr. Vollor argued there was no reason for the high court to get involved now, since another lawsuit arising from the ads is still pending in state court in Mississippi.
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