Will we soon elect the next Senator from Wal-Mart? That is the fear of many after the Supreme Court handed down a game changing decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission today. The ruling was called a doctrinal, political and practical "earthquake" by the New York Times.
In the inevitable 5-4 split, the Supreme Court overturned most limits on campaign spending by corporations. Whether it is considered a victory for the first amendment or a disaster for democracy of near biblical proportions, the decision that overturned two Supreme Court precedents and gutted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (more often known as the McCain-Feingold law), will change how voters see campaigns, political ads, even candidates. The ruling leaves in place a prohibition on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions.
Today's ruling stemmed from a decision by a lower court upholding restrictions on Citizens United, a conservative political group, wishing to air their film Hillary: The Movie, during the 2008 Democratic primaries. The court found the "movie" to essentially be a 90 minute campaign ad and limited its showing venues, as well as prohibiting broadcast within 30 days before the election, as required by McCain-Feingold.
At (very, very) bottom, the issue the Court decided today is this: do the laws such as McCain-Feingold (and many state statutes) unconstitutionally prohibit free speech with their limits on how much money can be spent by corporations on campaign contributions? The majority opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Justice Kennedy, and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Scalia, Alito and Thomas (dissenting in part) said in part, "Distinguishing wealthy individuals from corporations... does not suffice to allow laws prohibiting speech... . All speakers, including individuals and the media, use money amassed from the economic marketplace to fund their speech, and the First Amendment protects the resulting speech."
Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Breyer dissented, finding that the majority made an error in treating corporate speech the same as that of human beings.
The Washington Post reports today that the decision's most immediate effect is that it will permit corporate and union-sponsored political ads to run right up to the moment of an election, and to allow them to call for the election or defeat of a candidate.
Two additional limits on corporate spending remain standing: a disclosure requirement and a disclaimer requirement. A corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on election ads must disclose to the FEC names of anyone giving $1,000 or more to the ad's preparation or distribution. Any ad that is not authorized by a candidate or political committee must contain a disclaimer listing who is responsible for the ad and its content.
The most descriptive comment to appear so far today on the decision can can be found in the Washington Post. "It's the Super Bowl of bad decisions," said Common Cause president Bob Edgar, a former congressman from Pennsylvania.
To see a comprehensive round up of thoughts reported by the Washington Post on this decision, including comments from President Obama and Senator Russ Feingold, click here.