Supreme Court Overturns Key Part of McCain-Feingold

The US Supreme Court Thursday struck down a major portion of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws that prevented union and corporate paid issue ads in the final 30 days of election campaigns. The court also ruled that corporations can spend as much as they want to support candidates running for Congress or President.

The historic 5-to-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC overturned a 20-year-old ruling that said corporations can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to pay for their own campaign ads and rolled back centuries-old law about corporate spending. Under the ruling, corporations and unions will still be prohibited from giving direct contributions to candidates.

The ruling in many ways reflected the argument of advocates who claimed that stricter limits on campaign finance amounted to unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.

"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.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Paul Stevens wrote that the court made an error in treating corporate free speech the same as an individual speech free speech and that opening the door to unlimited cooperate spending increase the chances of corruption in the political system.  

"The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation," Justice Paul Stevens wrote in the dissenting opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Stevens’ dissent.

The case was brought by Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group that challenged restrictions on its ability to air a 90-minute film that was highly critical of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid. The cased centered on whether the restrictions on political expenditures by corporations and unions stifled protected speech.

“This is a victory for Citizens United, but even more so for the First Amendment rights of all Americans,” Citizens United President David Bossie said after the ruling was released. “The fault line on this issue does not split liberals and conservatives or Republicans and Democrats. Instead, it pits entrenched establishment politicians against the very people whom they are elected to serve.”

The decision sent shock waves — both legalistic and political — across Capitol Hill, rattled the White House, and shook America’s political landscape. The ruling is expected to reshape the way elections are conducted and have a big impact on the 2010 midterm elections, where corporations will have more financial freedom to attack Democratic efforts to reform healthcare, curb climate change, and institute financial regulations on Wall Street.

"The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics," President Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington–while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.”

Obama said it would immediately start to work with Democrats and Republicans on a solution to mitigate the rulings impact.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell applauded the decision.

“For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process,” the Kentucky Republican said. “With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups.”

Congressional Democratic called the decision “radical,” claimed it “undermined Democracy,” and warned that it will allow corporations to “unduly influence elections and casts a shadow of corruption on our government.”

“The Supreme Court has just predetermined the winners of next years elections,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York. “It won’t be Republicans, it won’t be Democrats, it will be corporate America.”

Schumer called the decision “un-American” and said he will hold hearings on it in coming days. Schumer is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

Schumer added, “we will not let this decision go unchallenged” and that the goal is to try and get something that would affect the 2010 elections.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, the Republican mastermind of the McCain-Feingold law, released a rather subdued statement. “I am disappointed by the decision of the Supreme Court and the lifting of the limits on corporate and union contributions," he said. "However, it appears that key aspects of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), including the ban on soft money contributions, remain intact.”

His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin, was more critical of the decision, calling it, “a terrible mistake.”

“The American people will pay dearly for this decision when, more than ever, their voices are drowned out by corporate spending in our federal elections,” Feingold said.

Advocacy groups on both side of the issue line up outside Congressional building to sing their praise and air their disappointment with the decision.

Steve Simpson, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, called the ruling a “ringing endorsement” of the core principles of First Amendment and a victory for the marketplace of ideas.

“The Supreme Court recognized today that the purpose of the First Amendment is to allow individuals and Americans to speak out as loudly and as robustly as they please,” he said. “That applies whether an individual chooses to speak out alone or whether he chooses to associate with others and speak out as a group – whether that group is a corporation, an unincorporated association, a non-profit or any other sort of group.”

Others said the court decision showed “their political activism” and opened the door for foreign countries and foreign investors to influence America’s political system.

"It’s the Super Bowl of bad decisions," said Common Cause president Bob Edgar, a former congressman from Pennsylvania. “Corporations aren’t individuals. Some of them are larger than countries. We need to recognize that money has influenced the debate here in Washington too long.”

The case began after Citizens United made the 90-minute documentary critical of then-Senator 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 courts said the movie – though it resembled a movie, it sounded like a long campaign ad – should be regulated under campaign finance laws.

The High Court first heard arguments in March. Then they convened a in a special argument in September to consider whether corporations and unions should be treated differently from individuals when it comes to campaign spending.