WASHINGTON – Overturning a century-old restriction, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that corporations may spend as much as they want to sway voters in federal elections.
In a landmark 5-4 decision, the court’s conservative bloc said corporations have the same right to free speech as individuals and, for that reason, the government may not stop corporations from spending to help their favored candidates.
The ruling – which will presumably apply to labor unions and other organizations – is likely to have an immediate effect on this year’s congressional elections. Many political analysts and election-law experts predict millions of extra dollars will flood into this fall’s contests, much of it benefiting Republican candidates.
While Republicans praised the decision as a victory for wide-open political speech, Democrats slammed it as a win for big money.
President Barack Obama called the ruling “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” He promised to seek “a forceful response to this decision” from Congress. Some Democrats talked about seeking legislation requiring corporations to get approval from their shareholders before spending money on politics.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said the court had restored proper rights to corporations and unions. Previously, “the government was picking winners and losers,” McConnell said.
Until Thursday, corporations and unions were barred from spending their own treasury funds on broadcast ads, campaign workers or billboards that urge the election or defeat of a federal candidate. This restriction dates back to 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to forbid corporations, railroads and national banks from putting money into federal races.
After World War II, Congress extended this ban to labor unions.
More recently, the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002 added an extra limit on corporate and union-funded broadcast ads in the month before an election. They were prohibited if they simply mentioned a candidate running for office.
Thursday’s decision swept away all these restrictions.
“The government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. While the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission dealt only with corporations, the ruling will likely free unions as well.
Two significant prohibitions were left standing. Corporations and unions cannot give money directly to the campaigns of federal candidates, or to political parties. And the court affirmed current federal rules that require the sponsors of political ads to disclose who paid for them. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on these points.
Thursday’s decision was supported by five justices who were Republican nominees. They include Kennedy, Roberts and Thomas along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The dissenters included the three Democratic appointees: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. They joined a 90-page dissenting opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, an appointee of President Gerald R. Ford. Stevens, who will turn 90 in April, spoke in a halting voice as he read a part of his dissent in the courtroom Thursday.
He called the decision “a radical change in the law.” He predicted the ruling “will cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress and the states to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process.”
The decision displayed a deep division of opinion on the court about the meaning of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech.
The majority said the Constitution broadly protected discussion and debate on politics, regardless of who was paying for the speech.
Stevens and the dissenters said the majority was ignoring the long-understood rule that the government could limit election money from corporations, unions and others, such as foreign governments. “Under today’s decision, multi-national corporations controlled by foreign governments” would have the same rights as Americans to spend money to tilt U.S. elections, Stevens said.
For critics of the campaign-funding laws, the Citizens United case was an acorn that grew into an oak. It began when Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a New York senator, said she was running for president. David Bossie, a longtime Clinton critic, set up Citizens United as a nonprofit corporation, and he produced a DVD called “Hillary: the Movie.” It was a slashing attack on her as vicious and untrustworthy. Bossie lost a suit against the Federal Elections Commission, which was charged with enforcing the McCain-Feingold Act. A lower court said the planned broadcast of the film was prohibited because it was an electioneering communication aimed at voters within 30 days of a presidential primary. Bossie appealed, citing the First Amendment.
When his case first reached the Supreme Court, the conservative justices voiced alarm that the government could restrict a movie, or perhaps a book, that criticized a candidate simply because it was paid for with corporate money. In September, they heard the case for a second time to broadly consider the issue of corporate-funded election ads.