Only twice in the past three decades has the U.S. Supreme Court returned early from its summer break to hear a case. The first time was in 1974, when the justices ordered then-President Richard Nixon to release Oval Office tapes in the Watergate scandal. The second time was Monday, when they heard four hours of oral arguments in a constitutional challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
The fast track given to this case, McConnell vs. FEC, shows its importance - and the urgency of having it resolved quickly. What the court does will affect next year's elections and alter the process for raising and spending funds for years to come.
Its challenge is to do it fast, but do it right. The law Congress passed last year was big, complex and deeply flawed - the product of uneasy and cynical compromises. As we said at the time, it was better than nothing, but not much better. Parts of it ought to be overturned, while others may pass constitutional muster. But what the justices really need to do is craft an overall framework, built on clear principles, to guide the government in setting campaign finance rules in the future. What, for example, should "money equals speech" really mean? Does banning some types of contributions muzzle free speech?
First on the chopping block should be the measure that prohibits political ads paid for by unions or corporations to be aired within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election - an enforced silence that mocks the First Amendment and could have dangerous consequences. It's such a no-brainer that the National Rifle Association and American Civil Liberties Union agree on it.
Justices should also take a hard look at the ban on national political parties accepting unregulated "soft-money" donations, which could weaken the parties' role while strengthening special interests.
"The currency of politics should be ideas, not dollars," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-N.D., a supporter of the law, said when it passed. Sounds noble, but Daschle knows it takes plenty of dollars to get those ideas across. The trick is to make sure those dollars are raised and used with the greatest accountability, transparency and fairness - and do not hamstring or simply rig the national political debate.
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