Political News

Campaign finance watchdogs decry Supreme Court's lifting of limits

Posted January 21, 2010
Updated January 22, 2010

— The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that corporations may spend as freely as they like to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress, easing decades-old limits on business efforts to influence federal campaigns.

The ruling immediately drew criticism by groups pushing campaign-finance reform.

"It's a terrible ruling, a bad day for democracy across the country and North Carolina," said Bob Hall, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. "This does open the door for corporations to essentially buy the elections, if they choose to."

By a 5-4 vote, the court overturned a 20-year-old ruling that said companies can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to produce and run their own campaign ads. The decision, which almost certainly will also allow labor unions to participate more freely in campaigns, threatens similar limits imposed by 24 states.

It leaves in place a prohibition on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions.

"This case represents a fundamental shift in the political landscape in the United States," said Michael Weisel, a Raleigh lawyer who specializes in election law. "You will see a major impact on North Carolina races because of this ruling."

The State Board of Elections was reviewing the ruling Thursday, and Executive Director Gary Bartlett said it was too early to tell the overall impact. He did note, however, that state election laws mirror federal statutes.

Critics of the stricter limits have argued that they amount to an unconstitutional restraint of free speech, and the court majority agreed.

"The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion, joined by his four more conservative colleagues.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined Kennedy to form the majority in the main part of the case.

Strongly disagreeing, Justice John Paul Stevens said in his dissent, "The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation."

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Stevens' dissent, parts of which he read aloud in the courtroom.

The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.

Advocates of strong campaign finance regulations have predicted that a court ruling against the limits would lead to a flood of corporate and union money in federal campaigns as early as this year's midterm congressional elections.

"It's the Super Bowl of bad decisions," said Common Cause president Bob Edgar, a former congressman from Pennsylvania.

The decision removes limits on independent expenditures that are not coordinated with candidates' campaigns.

"We are disappointed in today's ruling that essentially grants moneyed interests an outsized role in our democracy," Damon Circosta, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said in a statement. "When corporations are left unfettered to influence the political process, everyday citizens get left out. If politics is about a level playing field where ideas compete to be heard, the Supreme Court just handed an amplifier to the very folks who already had a megaphone."

The case does not affect political action committees, which mushroomed after post-Watergate laws set the first limits on contributions by individuals to candidates. Corporations, unions and others may create PACs to contribute directly to candidates, but they must be funded with voluntary contributions from employees, members and other individuals, not by corporate or union treasuries.

Roberts, in a separate opinion, said that upholding the limits would have restrained "the vibrant public discourse that is at the foundation of our democracy."

Stevens complained that those justices overreached by throwing out earlier Supreme Court decisions that had not been at issue when this case first came to the court.

"Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law," Stevens said.

The case began when a conservative group, Citizens United, made a 90-minute movie that was very critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton as she sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Citizens United wanted to air ads for the anti-Clinton movie and distribute it through video-on-demand services on local cable systems during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign.

But federal courts said the movie looked and sounded like a long campaign ad, and therefore should be regulated like one.

The movie was advertised on the Internet, sold on DVD and shown in a few theaters. Campaign regulations do not apply to DVDs, theaters or the Internet.

The court first heard arguments in March, then asked for another round of arguments about whether corporations and unions should be treated differently from individuals when it comes to campaign spending.

The justices convened in a special argument session in September, Sotomayor's first. The conservative justices gave every indication then that they were prepared to take the steps they did on Thursday.

The justices, with only Thomas in dissent, did uphold McCain-Feingold requirements that anyone spending money on political ads must disclose the names of contributors.

Phillips said such disclosure and more immediate campaign finance reporting will be needed under the new rules.

"It's important for the public – and for the shareholders too of these corporations – to know how that money is being spent," he said.

Circosta said the ruling creates more urgency to approve public financing of campaigns to prevent unlimited special-interest donations.

"We know that public campaign financing works to curb special interest influence, and we also know that courts have repeatedly deemed such systems to be constitutionally sound," he said. "North Carolina has been a national leader in establishing a public financing alternative. In the wake of this latest decision by the Supreme Court, we expect more support for programs that empower citizens to participate in their democracy."

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  • DizzyDaphnee Jan 22, 2010

    I WANT TO KNOW IF everybody posting here who UNDERSTANDS what this ruling means, did u call your Senator or House Rep today, have u sent them an email expressing how u think is wrong and goes against the "Bill of Rights". Have all of u done all u can to educate your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors to wake up and see, ask them to fight against this too. Nothing is set in stone. IF ENOUGH Americans protested effectively, it could be reversed. WHAT ARE ALL u doing to let the powers that be know this is not acceptable? I am writing, signing and seeking other means of expressing my extreme resistance to allowing 'CORPORATE" buyoffs, I mean contributions.

  • rroadrunner99 Jan 22, 2010

    This ruling mean's ALL political office's will be for sale to the highest bidder across the United States.There will be no such thing as "free speech" it'll be "bought and paid for speech".We can forget counting vote's now and start counting the money that is donated above and below the table's.

  • clayt85 Jan 22, 2010

    Remember a few years ago when Ten Commandments issue went through the courts? The Right flatly condemned "judicial activism" as unconstitutional. Pat Robertson even wrote a book about it ("The Ten Offenses"). My how the tables have turned! I guess activism is only a bad thing if you are on the losing side of it...

    For all the free-speechers out there, in no way is this case actually a case of free speech. Even before this law, corporations (which, by the way, are *not* entitled to free speech, as that is a right accorded to individuals only) could freely say whatever they wanted. They were prohibited, however, from undue influence in politics. Google "Tammany Hall" for why that was a good thing.

    This also does not "level the playing field" as colliedave has suggested. For those of us actually reading the article, this did *not* grant to corporations the same rights already afforded to labor unions. Both corporations *and* labor unions gain privilege under the new ruling.

  • Scrat Jan 22, 2010

    Now, I know a thing or two about "going nuts", and anybody with a brain bigger than a squirrel should realize that this is a bad idea. This decision allows people outside of our country to buy their way in to the law and policy process that affects every citizen of the United States. The goal is to drive people from the moderate middle, and only the extreme left or right will have a say in our government. If you support that, you have truly "Gone Nutty".

    I have often wondered about why it is that when an issue is discussed here, some people will always repeat what someone else says that they don't agree with, and then pick it apart and make personal attacks against the original poster, in rapid-fire talking points style. This seems to suggest that these "defenders of free speech" are not focused on the issue itself, but rather concentrated on drowning out dissenting opinion. Now the Supreme Court has decided to allow this same nonsense to rule our nation.

  • Capt Mercury Jan 22, 2010

    Great! That's all we needed was more money in politics.

    What the supreme court doesn't seem to understand here is that our nation's founding fathers did not have the broadcasting of electromagnetic radiation in mind when they guaranteed the right of free speech. We are all bombarded with so much garbage information now that it's difficult to know what's really true. If people would make decisions based on what they really know is true, versus what they heard on the radio/TV or read on the web, we'd all be better for it. TV offers visual evidence that can improve the information flow, but even pictures can lie these days.

    People, spend the time to do some real research on what's really going on.

  • 6079 SMITH W Jan 22, 2010

    "Fascism is capitalism in decay"

    Vladimir Lenin

  • WRALcensorsforIslam Jan 22, 2010

    I'm not sure it's possible to take the arguments of normson7 seriously. Without being allowed to finance political ads GM was able to get billions in handouts from Obama. They didn't have to buy ads to help him win election. GM was the beneficiary of billions stolen from the taxpayers and the perp was Obama. Even now, a corporation has the ability to buy ads, that doesn't mean they will. Politics is so awful and polarized that if Pepsi gave to Donkeys and Coke to GOOP'ers they would each alienate and drive off 1/3 of the population. Why would they do that? It makes no sense. It is unlikely that these doomsday scenarios have any merit. More likely is people banding together, forming a committee with some high sounding name and running their own ads. That was what was behind the lawsuit in the first place. That is what politicians wanted to supress, it wasn't the involvement of Pepsico or Coca Cola, Inc, in the electoral process. The lunatic left has gone nuts over this story.

  • 6079 SMITH W Jan 22, 2010

    "Fascism should be more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power."

    Benito Mussolini

  • FragmentFour Jan 22, 2010

    There's a remedy for this problem if the campaign reform people really want to go to work on it. Change the constitution.

  • MrX-- Jan 21, 2010

    It is sad to read how many people here are against free speech (and freedom in general I assume). Just because you form a group, partnership or (gasp!) corporation, does not mean that you should loose your basic rights as a group.

    Corporations are not evil entities, they are owned and run by people and those people have every right to collectively express their opinion when it effects their shared interests.

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