Indiana attorney James Bopp Jr. has spent 30 years fighting limits on campaign spending, and next year’s political landscape could be transformed by his labor: An election season in which at least $6 billion is likely to be spent, more than $700 million higher than 2008.
“The presumption is the gloves will be off in 2012,” said Sheila Krumholz, a campaign finance analyst who developed the spending estimate for next year’s presidential and congressional races independently of her Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s safe to say that groups on the left and right have Jim Bopp to thank for their new-found freedom.”
Of 31 lawsuits challenging campaign finance regulations tracked by the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, Bopp filed 21, including a case that led to creation of independent groups that raise unlimited sums of money to run political ads.
During an interview at his Terre Haute office, the white-haired, 63-year-old lawyer was unapologetic about his defense of free speech. The founding fathers “didn’t trust the government to write the laws because the government would write the laws to protect itself from the citizens criticizing it,” said Bopp, seated behind a 2-foot-high stack of successful case files yet to be stored in office cabinets.
Bopp in 2007 introduced the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, which three years later resulted in the repeal of restrictions on the roles of corporations and labor unions in political campaigns, then leading to an explosion of spending by independent, outside groups.
The Center for Responsive Politics, the Washington, D.C.-based group led by Krumholz that tracks political money, said spending by independent groups for the 2010 midterms was $305 million, compared with $69 million in 2006. She estimates that figure will reach $450 million in the 2012 presidential cycle.
Scott Thomas, a former Democratic FEC chairman now with Dickstein Shapiro LLP in Washington, said Bopp’s cases have almost gutted the 2002 campaign finance act intended to rein in outside groups and the influence of wealthy donors.
“We should now call the statute, ‘The Federal Election Campaign Act paid for and authorized by Jim Bopp,’” Thomas said in an interview.
An Indiana native, Bopp’s tenacity in attacking campaign finance laws is matched by his loyalty to his home state.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. After getting his law degree from the University of Florida, he returned home and has never considered relocating, even when a Chicago firm offered him a job. A photo of the Hoosiers’ game- winning shot against Syracuse University to win the 1987 NCAA basketball title adorns his wall alongside an autographed photograph with former President George W. Bush.
Clad in a green polo shirt and sipping coffee from an American flag-emblazoned mug, the father of three daughters said “we thought it was a more culturally conservative area to raise our children, and we weren’t forced to move because clients were willing to come to me in Terre Haute even though they were in D.C. or other places.”
To help pay his legal fees, Bopp set up the James Madison Center for Free Speech in 1997 with the help of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The center, also based in Terre Haute, reported donations of $579,935 from 2008 to 2010, of which $578,091 went to Bopp for legal fees, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. Donors have included an arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, a Washington-based anti-abortion organization, and the American Justice Partnership, created by the National Association of Manufacturers to lobby for state limits on civil lawsuits.
Board members include David Norcross, former Republican National Committee general counsel; Wanda Franz, former president of the National Right to Life Committee; and Betsy DeVos, who raised at least $100,000 for Bush’s 2004 re-election and, with her husband, donated $2 million to outside groups that ran ads attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry.
Bopp’s rise as a leading opponent of campaign finance laws was a two-step process. In 1976, the then-28-year-old attorney was offered a job at the Indiana Right to Life Committee. Two years later, he was hired as general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee. From that position, he helped the anti- abortion community incrementally challenge abortion rights — a tactic he adapted to the field of campaign finance law.
His first challenge of campaign regulations was a case in 1983 that overturned FEC limits on voter guides, including fliers the National Right to Life Committee distributed in churches before the 1980 presidential election.
Since then, his advocacy has repealed state laws that provide additional funds to candidates whose opponents spend more, tossed out state restrictions on judicial elections and overturned limits on interest group advertising in the weeks running up to an election.
His cases laid the groundwork for creation of so-called “Super PACs,” political committees that take unlimited donations and operate independently of candidates and which were fueled last year by new labor and corporate cash.
“It’s so complicated to win big victories that you have to go after these cases piecemeal,” said David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the Washington-based advocacy group that hired Bopp to bring the case that bears its name.
The victory was somewhat bittersweet. When the case reached the Supreme Court, Citizens United hired former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson to argue the case rather than Bopp. While “disappointed” by that decision, Bopp said, he thought “we certainly accomplished a lot in the case.”
Bossie, who made the switch, said he did so after learning of Olson’s record of winning more than 75 percent of his cases before the Supreme Court.
In a recent case, Bopp argued against laws banning corporate donations to candidates before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. A federal judge in Virginia in May threw out a federal ban in a separate case now on appeal in the Fourth Circuit. Bopp also challenges requirements that interest groups running political ads disclose donors and expenditures.
“He’s been financed by people who don’t like these rules,” said Trevor Potter, a Republican former FEC chairman who is president of the Campaign Legal Center, which supports campaign finance limits. “There are plenty of people who evidently would like money in politics to be secret.”
Bopp said his mission isn’t about money; it’s about free speech and inclusion in the political process. “We have the First Amendment,” he said. “The whole idea of that was to ensure robust participation by citizens in our democracy.”
Bopp’s successful advocacy has led others to join the mission, said Bradley Smith, another Republican former FEC chairman who founded the Alexandria, Va.-based Center for Competitive Politics to dismantle campaign regulations.
“Jim had been a lonely guy out there, litigating and litigating,” Smith said. “People started putting money into it. I don’t think Jim is as lonely as he used to be."