Strange Bedfellows: To Weaken Campaign-Finance Law, Starr’s Group Defends Edwards Backer

A heavy-hitting group of conservative lawyers led by Ken Starr and Ed Meese is jumping to the defense of a Democratic trial lawyer and major John Edwards backer.

No, Starr, Meese et al. haven’t suddenly undergone a political conversion. Instead, they see a chance to undermine campaign-finance laws they never supported in the first place.To explain: The American Civil Rights Union — a conservative legal organization whose policy board counts Starr and Meese, and several other prominent right-wing lawyers as members — has filed an amicus brief in a key campaign-finance case.

Pierce O’Donnell, a high-profile Los Angeles trial lawyer, is charged with reimbursing employees of his law firm for contributions to Edwards’s 2004 presidential bid, in violation of campaign-finance law. A judge ruled in O’Donnell’s favor this summer, finding that the law under which O’Donnell had been charged did not explicitly prohibit reimbursing donors, but the case is now on appeal.

The ACRU says its concern is simply one of proper legal procedure. In its brief, the group argues that the government tried O’Donnell under the wrong statute — one which doesn’t cover his actions — and therefore that convicting him “would transgress the fundamental rights and liberties of American citizens, as in a rogue, authoritarian state, rather than an enlightened liberal society.”

“Our position was a matter of criminal law,” ACRU’s Peter Ferrara told TPMmuckraker. “We don’t want the government to be railroading people into jail for made-up crimes that were not spelled out in the law.”

But ACRU also appears motivated by an eagerness to help undermine a key element of campaign-finance law. In addition to the O’Donnell case, the group also submitted amicus briefs — in opposition to campaign-finance laws, of course — in what were perhaps the two most important campaign-funding cases of the last few years: Citizens United v. FEC (the Hillary: The Movie case), which threatened a long-standing ban on corporate contributions; and McConnell v. FEC, which sought to strike down the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign-finance overhaul, and which Starr himself personally argued a few years after his quest to bring down Bill Clinton came to an end.

The stakes in the O’Donnell case could be high. If the courts hold that wealthy individuals can reimburse their employees for contributions, it would essentially be handing them a way to legally circumvent limits on individual contributions, potentially making those limits all but meaningless. A failure to convict O’Donnell “would be a devastating blow to campaign-finance law,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, who added that he expected the lower court’s decision to be over-turned.

ACRU has advocated for a range of conservative legal causes in recent years, including the Second Amendment, opposition to affirmative action, and what it sees as Americans’ right to free religious expression. In addition to Starr and Meese, the ACRU’s policy board also includes the conservative political-science professor James Q. Wilson, and the former Reagan administration official and Federalist Society member William Bradford Reynolds. A mission statement on the group’s website declares that it “stands against harmful anti-Constitutional ideologies that have taken hold in our nation’s courts, law schools, and bureaucracies. While others promote entitlements and license in the name of ‘liberties,’ the ACRU defends the civil rights set forth at the American Founding.”

Perhaps to make clear who those “others” are, a page on the group’s website lists “ACLU Outrages.”

Late Update: It’s worth noting that O’Donnell’s defense lawyer also has close ties to the conservative movement: George Terwilliger, a prominent Washington attorney, led George W. Bush’s legal team during the Florida election recount in 2000, and more recently represented Alberto Gonzales, when the former AG was the subject of a civil action brought by a law professor, charging that he illegally politicized the Justice Department.