Washington (CNN) - The Supreme Court has affirmed a congressional ban on "soft money"– the unlimited contributions to political parties for so-called "party-building" activities.
The justices in a brief order rejected an appeal from the Republican Party, urging the court to quickly step in and decide whether the soft money ban was unconstitutional. This after the Supreme Court in January eased long-standing restrictions on "independent spending" by corporations and unions in political campaigns.
The conservative majority ruling gave big business, unions and non-profits more power to spend freely in federal elections, threatening a century of government efforts to regulate the power of corporations to bankroll American politics.
That case dealt with independent campaign spending, and Republicans wanted the court to extend that to campaign fundraising by the national parties.
Traditionally, soft money donations have been used for "get-out-the vote" drives, voter registration efforts and ads that say "Vote for Democrats" or "Vote for Republicans." Potential uses of soft money, however, were limited by Congress with the passage of the 2002 campaign finance law known as McCain-Feingold.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas said they would have heard the Republican appeal. It takes at least four members of the court to accept a case for review.
The court's decision was announced at the same time as senators were questioning Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Capitol Hill, during her confirmation hearings. As solicitor general, Kagan had argued the government's case in the campaign spending appeal known as Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.
In the separate, current campaign donation case, a federal court in March said those recent campaign finance rulings put the national parties at a disadvantage in relation to outside groups like labor unions and issue advocacy groups, which are not subject to contribution or independent spending limits. The issue is whether federal courts could now give political parties more power to solicit funds. The Supreme Court in 2003 endorsed the ban on soft money.
The Republican National Committee had hoped to overturn the soft money ban in time to affect the November mid-term elections, and help pour lobbying money to influence a range of pending congressional legislation.
Democrats have in general opposed the GOP effort, but like their conservative counterparts, would benefit from any loosening of the soft money ban.
Before the soft money ban was passed in 2002, the two major political parties were able to annually raise hundreds of millions of dollars in unregulated, unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, as well as business and unions. The high court concluded in its 2003 ruling that such donations had an undue influence on the political process, giving certain individuals and groups greater access to elected officials.
Supporters of campaign finance reform say it is designed to prevent corruption in politics. Opponents said it would criminalize free speech and association. Since its enactment, the high court has written more than 23 opinions trying to interpret the law.
The case is Republican National Cmte. v. FEC (09-1287).