Thursday, January 21, 2010

Supreme Court ruled on corporate political spending

Court decision opens new avenues for corporate political spending

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The Supreme Court on Thursday opened wide new avenues for big-moneyed interests to pour money into politics in a decision that could have a major influence on the 2010 midterm elections and President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

The long-awaited decision overruled a 1990 ruling by the court that allowed the government to bar corporations from spending corporate funds on ads expressly urging a candidate’s election or defeat.

The decision, handed down in a special session of the court, was in a case brought by an obscure conservative group called Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission. The court also overruled part of a 2003 decision that upheld restrictions on independent corporate expenditures. But the decision upheld disclosure requirements for groups like Citizens United.

Citizens United had alleged in its lawsuit that its free speech rights were violated when the FEC moved to block it from using corporate cash to promote and air "Hillary: The Movie," a feature-length movie harshly critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton – and current secretary of state – during her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The FEC asserted that the movie expressly opposed Clinton’s election and therefore was subject to campaign laws barring the use of corporate cash to air election ads, and requiring donor disclosure. Citizens United disagreed and sued.

Lower courts sided with the FEC, and the Supreme Court first heard the ca
se in March. But instead of coming back with a ruling, in June Chief Justice John Roberts asked the parties to return for a rare re-argument of the case – with a much broader focus.

Instead of merely arguing whether federal election laws should have applied to “Hillary: The Movie,” Roberts asked the parties to argue whether the court should reverse rulings in two prior cases upholding the government’s ability to limit corporate and union election spending.

The court divided along ideological lines on the decision with Justice Antony Kennedy casting the deciding vote and writing the majority opinion. He was joined by Roberts and fellow conservative justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia. Another conservative justice, Clarence Thomas, filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The dissent was written by John Paul Stevens, who was joined by liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Tom Goldstein, publisher of the influential SCOTUSBLOG, declared “today's decision is a small revolution in campaign finance law,” though he cautioned the impact of the ruling “will depend on the wording.”

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