Ban on corporate political spending struck down by Supreme Court
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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's affirmation Monday that corporations have the right to engage in direct political activity squelched a long-shot hope that campaign finance reform advocates had of rolling back Citizens United, the 2010 decision that ushered in a new era of unbridled campaign spending.
In a 5-4 decision, the court summarily overturned a century-old Montana state law that banned corporate political expenditures, saying it conflicted with the First Amendment speech rights of corporations affirmed in the Citizens United case.
The ruling, while expected, served to underline the bleak landscape facing proponents of campaign finance regulations just a decade after the landmark McCain-Feingold Act restricted large, unregulated donations in federal elections.
Now, not only can corporations spend unlimited amounts of money on politics, but the 2012 campaign has been marked by the explosive growth of "super-PACs" -- independent political committees created by a lower-court decision that followed Citizens United and fueled by wealthy individuals and private companies. And with Monday's action, the Supreme Court made clear that any state laws seeking to ban corporate political expenditures are unconstitutional.
Such spending is "threatening the health of our democracy," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, adding that the court missed an opportunity to correct the "mistake" it made in Citizens United.
The silver lining, reform advocates hope, is that the return of big money into the system will trigger a public backlash.
"By the time this election is over, the country is going to look at the campaign finance system we have and think it is corrupt and insane," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. "And this is going to create major new opportunities for reform. When the country demands change, elected officials tend to pay attention."
But the Supreme Court's ruling in the Montana case makes it that much harder to curtail Citizens United, in part because it affirmed the idea that independent expenditures are not corrupting. Without a change in the court's makeup, overturning the decision would require a constitutional amendment -- no small feat. In the meantime, campaign finance reformers find themselves fending off challenges to remaining laws, particularly disclosure rules now being assailed by conservatives.
"There's not much more that campaign finance reformers can do other than to try to make disclosure as firm as possible, maintain reasonable campaign contribution limits and do whatever we can do keep money out of judicial elections," said American University law professor Jamie Raskin, a Democratic Maryland state senator who co-sponsored a state disclosure law in the wake of Citizens United.
But conservative attorney James Bopp Jr., who has led the charge against campaign finance restrictions, said critics of Citizens United are on a "quixotic path."
"This is just grasping at straws, flailing about like a bunch of fools," he said. "There's nothing effective that can be done to limit independent spending. The Supreme Court made that perfectly clear today."
First Published June 26, 2012 12:00 am