RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.
Steve Inskeep is in New York, where he's accepted a DuPont award. Were proud to say that he, Michele Norris, and others of our colleagues at NPR received the award for our coverage of race and politics in 2008 presidential election.
And we begin this mornings program with a major political milestone. The U.S. Supreme Court, by a five to four vote, has potentially transformed American politics and government, giving corporations and unions unfettered power to spend money in candidate elections.
The decision is seen - in the short run, at least - as helping Republicans and business interests, which generally have the most money at their disposal. President Obama and campaign reformers condemned the ruling, but there may be little they can do to counteract the high court decision. We have two reports now, beginning with NPRs legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG: The Supreme Courts decision yesterday reversed a century-long congressional ban on corporate spending in candidate elections and decades of high court decisions upholding that ban. The ruling, by implication, also invalidates a ban on union spending, as well as similar state bans. Both campaign reform advocates and critics called the decision an earthquake in the law, transformative. Or, as former Republican National Committee General Counsel Ben Ginsberg put it...
Mr. BEN GINSBERG (Former General Counsel, Republican National Committee): It is going to look an awful lot like the Wild, Wild West when the campaign season heats up more.
TOTENBERG: To critics of campaign finance restrictions like Ginsberg, thats as it should be, because they believe corporations have a First Amendment right to express their views through campaign spending. The decision will restructure the way election campaigns are run, not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level, too. Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and general counsel for Senator John McCains presidential campaign, notes that corporate spending bans in 24 states and countless localities will be obliterated almost overnight.
Mr. TREVOR POTTER (Former Chairman, Federal Election Commission): And suddenly, this prospect of a corporation thats unhappy with a zoning decision or the action of a local mayor being able to go in and spend enough money to defeat them in the next election or elect a new town council all with corporate funds is going to be a big shock.
TOTENBERG: Judicial elections in every state will now see more corporate and union spending, too. And in Congress, the floodgates are now fully open. Or as former GOP counsel Ben Ginsberg says...
Mr. GINSBERG: They will be - now be able to spend oodles squared.
TOTENBERG: Experts on both sides of the issue said yesterday that, at least initially, the Republican Party is likely to benefit from the decision. Jan Barron(ph) is an advocate for lifting the ban on corporate spending.
Mr. JAN BARRON: The potential beneficiary here would be the party or the candidates who are perceived as being more beneficial to free enterprise and business.
TOTENBERG: Experts pointed to other potential consequences of yesterday's ruling. Parties may be weakened because they're still limited by law in the money they can raise, while corporations and unions can now spend with abandon. As a result, there may be increased pressure on Congress to remove limits on party spending. Former Republican counsel Ginsberg.
Mr. GINSBERG: I do believe that this whole past 35 years of reform has now put us in a really bad system where candidates - either on their own or through parties - are small voices in the debate, and the special interest groups are running supreme.
TOTENBERG: President Obama blasted yesterdays ruling as a victory for Wall Street, big banks, big oil and big insurance companies, and he called on Congress to take steps to fix it. But reform advocates admitted privately that they could see few avenues to do that in light of the Supreme Courts broad language, declaring that corporations have a First Amendment right of free speech akin to individuals, and rejecting outright years of congressional findings that money is a corrupted influence in politics.
Former FEC chairman Potter called the courts decision essentially naive, and he lamented the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who served as a GOP leader in the Arizona state Senate before becoming a judge. Seven years ago, she wrote part of the decision upholding the McCain-Feingold law. That decision was reversed yesterday by a newly energized conservative majority that includes two justices named to the court by President Bush after O'Connors retirement. Trevor Potter.
Mr. POTTER: The absence of OConnor makes such a difference on this issue, because she really was the only one who absolutely got it as a legislator. And now you've got nine justices who all have a completely different background, either academics or executive branch, and they dont have a personal understanding of what goes on in a legislature and how the money is raised and what the pressures are.
TOTENBERG: Other critics of the decision were more blunt. Here's Fred Wertheimer, who's helped craft every piece of campaign reform legislation since Watergate.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER: This is the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in Supreme Court history. Chief Justice Roberts and four of his colleagues abandoned long-standing judicial principles, judicial precedents and judicial restraint.
TOTENBERG: For the foreseeable future, though, the conservative court majority is in the driver's seat by a one vote majority.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.