Supreme Court Rejects Campaign Spending Limits

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that corporations may spend freely to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress. The ruling eases decades-old limits on their participation in federal campaigns.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

In a sweeping decision today, the Supreme Court has struck down the century-old ban on corporate spending in federal elections. The ruling also invalidates similar corporate bans in state elections.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is at the high court, and she joins us now live. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the ban - what? It dates back to 1907.

TOTENBERG: Yeah. Since 1907, the nation's campaign finance laws have, for all practical purposes, banned corporate spending on candidate elections. In 1947, the ban was extended to unions. And in 2002, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold bill to plug loopholes that had emerged over the years. One provision banned broadcasting any ad 30 days before an election if it was financed with corporate funds. The Supreme Court upheld that law seven years ago, citing earlier rulings on corporate spending. And today, a markedly more conservative court with two Bush appointees now sitting reversed that earlier decision on the McCain-Feingold law and struck down any ban on corporate spending that Congress may enact.

MONTAGNE: And this has huge implications. You were in the courtroom today. Describe what happened.

TOTENBERG: Well, this was a special day added to the court calendar, because this is a law that is - that the court is instructed to expedite any consideration of rulings on it. And Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the decision for the 5-4 court. He said that the marketplace of ideas guaranteed by the Constitution includes corporations, which, after all, represent a significant segment of society and of our economic life. When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship, he said, to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment guarantee of free speech confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.

MONTAGNE: And so that is the majority, obviously. Was there a spoken dissent from the bench?

TOTENBERG: Yes. Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote part of the decision that was overturned today, he wrote the decision upholding the McCain-Feingold law, called the five-justice majority's decision a radical departure from precedent from a hundred years of law. He pointed out that corporations could, under the law, still spend money, but they had to use political action committees which regulate contributions and limit what individuals can give.

MONTAGNE: And that's under the current law.

TOTENBERG: That's under the current law that was struck down. This radical departure, he said, undoes the longstanding consensus in a democratic society on the need to limit corporate campaign spending. At bottom, the court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who recognize the need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It's a strange time, he said, to repudiate that common sense.

MONTAGNE: Well, practical implications: We have midterm elections this year. Does this decision mean there are no limits on what unions and corporations can spend?

TOTENBERG: It means that as long as they do it independently - and in the modern era, all you have to do is copy pretty much what the candidate is doing and follow it. As long as they do it independently, they can spend whatever they want. And it will undoubtedly help Republican candidates, since corporations have generally supported Republican candidates more. And it will probably lead to some new fights over how much corporations have to tell their shareholders about what they're doing and how much they have to - and whether they can be controlled in spending general treasury funds at all.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thank you.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Nina Totenberg, on a Supreme Court ruling today, striking down a century-old ban on corporate spending in federal elections.

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