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A divided Supreme Court rules against restricting campaign contributions

January 28th, 2010

In an effort to extend the First Amendment right of freedom of speech to business organizations, the Supreme Court decided against the government’s ability to restrict a corporation’s campaign contributions for elections. 

While many in support of this decision view it as a rightful extension of freedom of speech that had been denied for decades, others in dissent worry that with this newfound power, the role of corporations will disenfranchise the individual voter.  

Kevin Snape, a political science professor at John Carroll University, said, “The implication of equating speech to money, under this ruling is then if you do not have money then you seemingly do not have speech.”  

In addition to this he said, “It potentially and dramatically changes the balance of power between the individual and corporation, and now we need to find a new balance point for fundraising.”

According to The New York Times, President Barack Obama expressed his dismay over the decision, stating that this ruling 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.”

Countering these criticisms, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court ardently maintains that the prior statutes restricting corporation and union contributions unconstitutional.  

Many, like Roberts, argue that during an election, the ability to speak matters most. Therefore, hindrances to doing so, especially in this case, are a violation of the freedom of speech protected by the Constitution.

The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision provides corporations and labor unions with the constitutional right of freedom of speech. 

In reaching this conclusion after first hearing arguments and then inviting both parties back for an uncharacteristic second hearing, the court overturned two legal precedents designed to regulate the role of business in elections.  

This judgment becomes even more significant when applying it to the seemingly narrow scope of the case brought before the Supreme Court involving an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary called “Hillary: The Movie.”

The Federal Elections Commission had limited the ability of Citizens United, the group producing the film, from advertising their documentary during the 2008 Presidential Primary season; thus, sparking the legal battle.  

While some speculated the ruling would be in relation to the bipartisan McCain-Feingold law that prohibits soft money contributions to national parties to use towards advertising in favor of, or opposing specific candidates, the result had larger ramifications.  

The ruling, while addressing the specific issue at hand, went further to apply that in all instances, corporations should be guaranteed freedom of speech. 

The Court ruled that since money is an extension of speech, corporations have a right to use their profits to support their interests. In response to this arguably broad ruling, Snape said, “This is one of the biggest examples of judicial activism since Roe v. Wade.”

The Supreme Court was left fervently divided over the outcome, with the “conservative wing,” composed of Justices John Roberts,  Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, while  the “liberal wing,” composed of  Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote the dissenting opinion.

Stevens, perhaps the most adamantly opposed to the ruling, expressed his disagreement in a 90-page dissent.  This decision also highlights the impact of Justice Kennedy as a “sway” vote in issues as controversial as this.

Although many leading Democrats, including President Obama, are opposed to the unfettered freedom corporations are now able to exploit in the political arena, Congress will be left with little current legislation to work with in terms of developing campaign finance reform.