Supreme Court allows more corporate cash in politics
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In a sharply divided decision that will have far-reaching implications on America's political landscape, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the government cannot stop private corporations from spending their money on political campaigns.
Reaction to the decision was swift and cut mostly down political lines. Republicans largely hailed it as a triumph for free speech. Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, said the ruling was a free pass for corporations to influence elections as never before.
And while the court was strongly divided in its 5-4 vote, there was unanimity on its expected result. More money will flow into the political system, and more television and radio ads will run during campaigns, starting as soon as the 2010 mid-term elections.
The ruling permits corporations to directly produce and pay for political ads. It effectively lifted the same prohibition on organized labor unions.
The ban on direct corporate donations to candidates still remains in place, however.
The ruling also could force Pennsylvania to change its own campaign laws, parts of which mirror federal restrictions.
Mr. Obama, in a rare presidential response to a high court decision, said: "The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special-interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power [in] Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." He promised to talk with "bipartisan congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision."
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court's conservative bloc that there is "no basis for allowing the government to limit corporate independent expenditures ... [or] for the proposition that, in the political speech context, the government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers. ... The government may regulate corporate speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech," and to do so would violate the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Dissenting Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined a 90-page opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, who read part of his dissent in the courtroom yesterday. He called the ruling "a radical change in the law ... that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions -- and the narrow interests they represent -- in determining who will hold public office. ... Corporations are not human beings. Corporations can't vote. They can't run for office," he said. He predicted that it would "cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress and the states to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process."
Labor groups, concerned that their coffers aren't as deep as those of the corporations with which they often battle, have received the ruling tepidly, although one union -- the AFL-CIO -- filed a brief in the case (Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission) that called for lifting the ban on direct corporate and union financing of political ads and electioneering.
The Communications Workers of America, on the other hand, said the ruling was a disaster. "We really feel that this is going to have a terrible impact on the political landscape," said Alex Minishak, political coordinator for the CWA's District 13, which covers Pennsylvania and Delaware. "We do think that it's regrettable that the AFL-CIO filed an amicus brief to strike down the limitations on unions using their treasury funds."
The United Steelworkers also has reservations. "It will have a minimal impact on our political activity," USW International Secretary-Treasurer Stan Johnson said in a statement. "Still, we have grave concerns about this decision's impact on the electoral process, since it will further enable corporations to spend big money on PACs and, possibly, soft money -- areas where unions are already significantly outspent."
The case traces its origins to the 2008 presidential campaign. A conservative group, Citizens United, made a 90-minute film critical of Democratic primary candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Citizens United wanted to air "Hillary: The Movie" on television, but federal courts quickly barred the broadcast, saying it amounted to a long campaign ad that should be regulated by the FEC.
The ruling overturned two earlier Supreme Court decisions and discarded parts of the 63-year-old law that said corporations and unions can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to produce and run their own campaign ads.
The law was in place, partly, to keep corporate money from overrunning politics, and to prevent companies and unions from using shareholder money and union dues to pay for campaign ads and activities.
Instead, companies and unions were free to assemble political activity committees. Company (or union) employees are free to contribute to those PACs, but the contributions are voluntary, and the PACs were meant to serve as a buffer between politically active donors and the company itself. That buffer would disappear when this ruling is enforced; companies could direct corporate money to their already-existing PACs or could campaign independently.
But will they? While companies and unions might run issue-specific ads, they may be more cautious about electioneering for or against specific candidates, for fear of politicians' retribution or consumers' negative reactions. "Corporations historically have been leery to get involved in races," former FEC Chairman Michael Toner said in The Wall Street Journal.
The ruling also would relax restrictions on what can be said in campaign ads, and when. Corporations, unions and other entities now will be able to directly run ads urging a vote for or against certain lawmakers, and those ads can now be run within the month leading up to Election Day. Previously, federal law forbade certain ads from airing in the 30 days before a vote.
"Obviously, it's a tragic decision, which is going to have a pretty profound impact on who owns our elections and our government," said Barry Kauffman, director of the Common Cause PA watchdog group. The ruling essentially interprets the Constitution to mean that "corporations are people too," and have free-speech rights. "We don't believe that's the correct interpretation."
The Associated Press reports that 24 states have similar laws on the books, regulating statewide elections. Pennsylvania is one of them -- section 1633 of the Pennsylvania Election Code bars "use of either corporate or union treasury dollars for political purposes," said Steve MacNett, general counsel to state Senate Republicans. "Given the continuing evolution of federal jurisprudence in this area, I'm not altogether surprised" by the ruling, he said. Democrats and liberal groups may want to find a way to minimize the impact of the ruling, but "it may be sound on the law," Mr. MacNett said.
Pennsylvania will now have to review its statute's wording to determine whether the Supreme Court decision "directly controls" it. If so, the Legislature may have to amend the law.
The Department of State, headed by Secretary Pedro Cortes, is charged with enforcing election law. Last evening, a spokesman said officials had just received the ruling and were digesting its implications.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., said the ruling "upsets 100 years of precedent and will give enormous power to corporations in the determination of who's elected to public office at all levels." Mr. Specter said he also believes that Buckley v. Valeo, a landmark 1976 campaign finance decision, "went too far saying that money is speech. And now, to say that corporate money is free speech is just extraordinary judicial activism, and it gives corporations a gigantic megaphone," he said.
That could be taken away by constitutional amendment, but Mr. Specter said, "I'm not advocating one at this time -- it [the ruling] just came down this morning -- but I think some consideration would be in line for that."
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he had concerns "about whether or not this would tip the balance or further exacerbate a problem we have in this country: that we have a lot of corporate power in [Washington] that will be enhanced by virtue of that ruling."
Watchdog groups generally panned the decision. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which monitors judicial elections, said the ruling will "open the floodgates to direct corporate and union spending in statewide judicial elections." PMC Deputy Director Shira Goodman said in a statement, "It's like the Supreme Court said 'let the money roll in.' "
First Published January 22, 2010 12:00 am