The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down key provisions of some of the central laws governing how the nation’s political campaigns are financed just ahead of the pivotal 2010 midterm congressional primaries and election season.
By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that corporations may spend freely to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress, overturning a 20-year-old ruling.
It could take weeks to sort through the full ramifications of the landmark ruling, but its ripple effects could endanger federal limits on corporate and union contributions to candidates, as well as other measures that restrict how political ads are regulated. The ruling could unleash a flow of new corporate cash into the political realm.
For one thing, the decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, removes limits on independent expenditures that are not coordinated with candidates’ campaigns.
The original case before the court seemed an improbable vehicle for a dramatic reexamination of corporate spending restrictions approved by Congress in 2002 as part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The court had largely upheld the law after the decision was appealed by GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in 2003, but Thursday’s ruling struck down part of McCain-Feingold.
This case, brought by Citizens United, a non-profit group, against the Federal Election Commission, presented a seemingly straightforward question: Do campaign finance restrictions on corporate spending apply to Citizen United’s plan to run advertisements for an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary at the peak of her 2008 presidential run?
But the high court ended up in a much broader examination of constitutional issues that questioned the entire system that has been built up over decades to regulate the role of corporate money in politics.
Ever since justices first heard arguments on the Citizens United case last March, they have gone to unusual lengths before rendering a decision.
The court scheduled a rare re-argument in September — a month before the fall term officially began. And justices ordered lawyers from both sides to expand their scope to address not just the corporate electioneering issue at play in Citizens United, but the constitutionality of all limits to corporate political speech.
Thursday’s announcement of the decision was even made on a day the court does not normally deal with such issues.
At the center of the court’s inquiry is the McCain-Feingold law, which prohibited “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or unions from being broadcast or transmitted 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before the general election. Opponents of the law say it allows the Federal Election Commission to in effect restrict free speech.
But the court also reached even further back to reexamine a 1990 precedent that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates. Some watchdog groups fear that if the limits are scrapped completely, it could open a massive spigot of special interest money from deep-pocketed companies.
The 2008 case was originally launched by Citizens United, a non-profit group that advocates for conservative ideals and candidates.
Citizens United wanted to air a 90-minute documentary chronicling Clinton’s more than 30 years in public life from a conservative perspective through news clips, interviews with acquaintances and other material. Citizens United spokesman Will Holley said the film was sold online and through retailers for $19.95 and was in limited distribution at select movie theaters during 2008.
But questions arose when Citizens United sought to advertise Hillary The Movie on television in January 2008 — the same month as major Democratic primaries — without running any disclaimers or disclosures of donors.
The FEC barred the ads from running without the disclaimers. Citizens United claimed that the advertisements were commercial speech more akin to a documentary, rather than opposition to candidate Clinton.
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