COLUMBUS, Ohio – The ruling Thursday by the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) that corporations and unions can now spend unlimited amounts of their treasury funds to influence federal political campaigns for Congress or the White House rewrites the rules on how campaigns will be conducted going forward in this year’s mid-term elections and for the race for president in 2012.
Until today, Federal law prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as an “electioneering communication” or for speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.
But today’s 5-4 decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, by overturning a century of laws and practices on free speech in America that also eviscerates the law called McCain-Feingold that established federal campaign finance rules, opens the flood gates for more money to work its magic in American politics.
The court said the “Government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.” While candidates cannot receive campaign contributions directly, corporations and unions can now create their own groups and conduct their own schemes during elections.
Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, known as the so-called liberal block of the court, dissented. Stevens’ opinion, 90 pages in length, said “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”
The decision was in response to a case brought by an obscure conservative group called Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission. Reports on the decision say the court also overruled part of a 2003 decision that upheld restrictions on independent corporate expenditures. The decision upheld disclosure requirements for groups like Citizens United.
Citizens United had alleged in its lawsuit that its free speech rights were violated when the FEC moved to block it from using corporate cash to promote and air “Hillary: The Movie,” a feature-length movie harshly critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton – and current secretary of state – during her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to published reports on today’s decision.
Analysis of the ruling noted that the FEC asserted that the movie expressly opposed Clinton’s election and therefore was subject to campaign laws barring the use of corporate cash to air election ads, and requiring donor disclosure. Citizens United disagreed and sued.
Lower courts, reports say, sided with the FEC, and the Supreme Court first heard the case in March. But instead of coming back with a ruling, in June Chief Justice John Roberts asked the parties to return for a rare re-argument of the case – with a much broader focus. Roberts asked the parties that Instead of merely arguing whether federal election laws should have applied to “Hillary: The Movie,” they argue whether the court should reverse rulings in two prior cases upholding the government’s ability to limit corporate and union election spending.
“If the Supreme Court reverses both longstanding and recent precedent to rule that free speech rights of corporations prevent Congress from enacting such common sense campaign finance regulations, we can expect an increase in political corruption, as well as a subversion of democratic principles of representation,” Monica Youn of the Justice Brennan responded in an email.
On the corruption front, she said such court-imposed deregulation would allow corporations to use their treasury funds to try to install candidates who support their agendas and to unseat lawmakers who resist corporate demands. Moreover, “in terms of our democracy, we can expect to see elected officials be beholden to corporate special interests rather than to the voters who elected them.” she said the stakes in this case, and in a series of ongoing cases in which the Supreme Court is expected to further consider deregulating campaign finance law, “are incredibly high.”
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, speaking to reporters Thursday morning, said the court is not an elected body and that its decision is “troubling because more money, not less,” will flow into politics. He said special interest money from drug manufacturers and insurance companies and other large American companies is not good for the political system.
Senior New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said today’s SCOTUS ruling has “just predetermined the winners of this year’s elections”, and it won’t be individuals, he said, “it will be corporations.” Schumer said Congressional hearings will be held on the decision. “I haven’t seen a decision that more undermines democracy,” Schumer said at a press conference this morning. “We will regret the day that this decision has been issued.”
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