The state Supreme Court has agreed to review the city's new campaign-contribution limits, but not until after next month's primary election - an apparent break for self-financed millionaire Tom Knox and a setback for U.S. Reps. Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady.

Fattah had asked the court to step into the dispute and speed up its decision-making - potentially throwing out the campaign-finance limits in time for the Democratic mayoral candidates to solicit major donors for a blitz of TV spots before the May 15 primary.

The court agreed to take the case, but only two of the seven justices - Ron Castille and David Saylor - supported a quick decision.

The court could decide the case in time to affect fundraising for the general election in November, lawyers speculated, but the city's contribution limits will stay in place at least through the primary.

Commonwealth Court ruled 6-1 last week that the city has the authority to set its own campaign-finance rules.

The Philadelphia limits permit individual donors to give up to $5,000 a year to this year's mayoral candidates. Unions, law firms and political-action committees can give up to $20,000 a year.

That's more than donors can give in other jurisdictions around the country, but way below the six-figure donations from law firms, developers and other businessmen that have dominated past Philadelphia elections.

Meanwhile, Knox, who estimates his net worth at $100 million, is allowed to donate as much as he wants to his own campaign, because of U. S. Supreme Court decisions that treat such expenditures as free speech.

Buying $5 million in TV ads over the past six months, Knox has climbed sharply in the polls, starting near zero and now leading the field with about 24 percent of likely voters, according to a recent Keystone Poll.

"One candidate is sitting on a bottomless pot of gold and will spend every dime of it to buy City Hall," complained Brady's spokeswoman, Kate Philips. "So an uneven playing field exists for the other four candidates."

Fattah and Brady compounded their problems with weak fund-raising efforts last year. Fattah raised just $396,950 from 144 donors, Brady $429,225 from 139 supporters.

Rival Michael Nutter, a leader in City Council's effort to pass the contribution limits, praised the Supreme Court for not wading into the campaign-finance issue before the primary.

"It ensures that everyone will follow the rules, and we will not have excess campaign contributions influencing the election," Nutter said.

He said he wasn't worried about Knox's war chest. "Money can buy you a lot of ads, but it cannot buy you a public record," Nutter said.

In another political lawsuit, Knox supporters filed an appeal to the Supreme Court challenging Brady's spot on Democratic ballots. Knox had challenged Brady's omission of his city and carpenters' union pensions on a financial-disclosure form. Brady has defeated the challenge in Common Pleas and Commonwealth courts. *