In a decision widely anticipated for its effect on campaign finance laws — if not the First Amendment itself — the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, 5-4, that corporations and independent groups may spend unlimited funds for or against candidates for president and Congress. The ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, takes effect immediately, and could play a huge role in the 2010 midterm elections.
Both sides in the bigger debate over money and politics agree that today's decision is significant. The winning side says it's a victory for free speech and the First Amendment. The losing side said that the reforms placed on campaigns in the aftermath of Watergate and other scandals are in serious jeopardy.
Today's decision overturns a 20-year ruling — Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce — that prohibited corporations or labor unions from paying for campaign ads. The decision removes spending limits for independent expenditure groups. It threatens to remove spending limits already established in 24 states. And it struck down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that bars issue ads paid for by corporations or unions in the closing days of a campaign.
NPR's Peter Overby adds that one limit remains intact: corporations still cannot give money directly to federal candidates or national party committees. That limit dates back to 1907.
As for the case at hand: Citizens United, a conservative organization, put together a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton, then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. The group wanted to make Hillary: The Movie available to cable TV viewers in 2008 without having to comply with federal campaign finance laws. The FEC said it should be regulated as if it were a campaign ad or expenditure.
The Supreme Court failed to reach a decision in the case by the end of its term last June and decided to hear more arguments to expand the reach of the case in a special court session in September.
Jeff Patch of the Center for Competitive Politics welcomed the ruling:
A transformative opinion issued by the U.S. Supreme Court today restores the First Amendment rights of businesses, unions and nonprofit advocacy groups to participate in campaigns.
It's an extraordinary win for free political speech rights by speakers of all stripes.
Patch is also quoted in USA Today as calling the decision "a win for the First Amendment political rights of small businesses, grassroots groups and others who now can avoid the burden of running through a regulatory maze before speaking out in campaigns."
The opposite view came from Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, who called the decision a "disaster for the American people and a dark day for the Court":
The decision will unleash unprecedented amounts of corporate "influence-seeking" money on our elections and create unprecedented opportunities for corporate "influence-buying" corruption.
Today's decision is the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in Supreme Court history ... [and one which] profoundly undermines our democracy. ...
With a stroke of the pen, five Justices wiped out a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy.
Less alarmed is Chris Good, blogging at The Atlantic:
This basically eliminates a middleman: before today, corporations and unions had to set up PACs (political action committees), filed separately with the IRS, that would receive donations. And they did. Corporations and unions spend millions of dollars on elections. Now, however, the accounting firewall is gone, and Wal-Mart or the Service Employees International Union, for instance, can spend their corporate money directly on candidates.
Meanwhile, congressional proponents of limits to campaign spending promise quick action. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) plan to offer legislation to, as a Van Hollen press release states, "minimize the damage and ensure that all Americans — not just special interests — have access to our political system."