Supreme Court Overturns Campaign Finance Provisions

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Supreme Court has ruled that government cannot restrict political contributions by corporations, overturning key campaign finance provisions.

The court, in a 5-to-4 decision, ruled that under the First Amendment the government may not restrict political spending by corporations.  As The New York Times reports, writing in the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy says that freedom of speech extends also to "associations of citizens" who can't be jailed or punished for political speech. 

In a lengthy dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that corporations do not deserve the same protection, when it comes to political speech, as human beings. Corporations cannot vote or run for office like individuals, Stevens wrote, and "their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters."

President Obama said the ruling will lead to a "stampede of special interest money" into policial campaigns and promised a "forceful response."

But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, praised the court for "restoring the First Amendment rights" of corporations and unions. McConnell filed the first lawsuit challenging the sweeping campaign finance law passed in 2002, which is known as the McCain-Feingold law.

"By previously denying this right, the government was picking winners and losers," McConnell said.

The case decided by the court, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, involves a 90-minute movie that is highly critical of Hillary Clinton. Citizens United wanted to air ads for the anti-Clinton movie and distribute it through video-on-demand services on local cable systems during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Federal courts barred them from doing so, saying the movie was essentially a long campaign ad.

It is a sweeping decision that overturns precedents and overturns one of the most significant pieces of legislation of the past decade. But as SCOTUSblog points out, the decision does leave some issues hanging. For instance, the decision does not spell out whether restrictions have also been lifted for labor unions. 

Another question, and this one the Court explicitly said it was not deciding, was whether foreign corporations with operations in the U.S. — placed under the same restrictions as domestic ones — might now be able to claim the same First Amendment protection if they want to spend large sums to try to influence U.S. federal elections.  Perhaps that is one example of the next generation of campaign finance lawsuit.

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