WASHINGTON-Just as newly elected Scott Brown was walking the halls of the Senate office buildings, the Supreme Court announced a decision that will have far-reaching implications for campaigns later this year.
"The impact of this case could dwarf the implications of Tuesday's election," said Michael Waldman, the executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice, who opposed the ruling.
After more than a year of deliberation and a second hearing in September, the high court ruled that corporations' funding of campaigns should not be regulated, overturning its own precedents as well as laws like McCain-Feingold that restricted campaign spending. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, supported by Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia.
The Roberts court, which has issued mostly narrow rulings, shocked observers by dispensing such a dramatic decision. Kennedy wrote in his opinion that the court "cannot resolve this case on a narrower ground without chilling political speech." Congress' laws regulating campaign spending, he wrote, "burden speech."
The decision allows money to flow from corporations in support of a political issue or campaign. Corporations are still forbidden from directly contributing to a campaign. Just about any business or nonprofit organization meets the definition of a "corporation," so the new guidelines from the court could apply to labor unions as well as nonprofit groups.
What does this mean for campaigns? Law experts believe that outside groups will be stronger voices in campaigns-meaning the official campaigns themselves will lose some degree of control over how candidates and issues are portrayed. And the growing influence of outside groups will scrape away influence from those who organize and build official campaigns.
"Unless the laws change, the political party as we know it is threatened with extinction," wrote Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg in a memo with several of his colleagues on the decision.
The primaries for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama in Illinois take place in 12 days, making it the first race that will feel the impact of this decision.
Liberals quickly condemned the decision as an overreach that would threaten a fair democracy, while conservatives lauded the decision as protecting free speech.
"The bottom line is this: The Supreme Court has just predetermined the winners of next November's elections," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "It won't be Republicans, it won't be Democrats, it will be corporate America." House Republican Leader John Boehner countered that the decision was "a big win for the First Amendment and a step in the right direction. Sunshine is the best disinfectant."
But the issue created divisions that were far more complex than simply conservative and liberal. Pro-life groups joined with labor unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Rifle Association in arguing that the campaign financing restrictions be overturned. On the other side, Republican Sen. John McCain, one of the authors of the law regulating spending, joined the Democratic National Committee and the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in supporting the restrictions.
President Obama, in a statement, expressed strong opposition to the Supreme Court's decision, adding that his administration would begin discussions with congressional leaders "to develop a forceful response." He stated, "The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics."
The case began as a lawsuit from the conservative group Citizens United, which had produced a partisan film about then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, titled Hillary: The Movie, which the FEC banned from television and video-on-demand because it was considered an extended campaign ad funded by a corporation.
As many compared Scott Brown's arrival in Washington Thursday to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (see "Scott Brown's moment," Jan. 21, 2010), the court's opinion cited that very film as an example of government's attempt to regulate speech. Several government officials sought to discourage the distribution of that film at the time it was released in 1939, and Justice Kennedy wrote that under existing court precedents (which the court just overturned), the film could be banned. "The film, like Hillary, was speech funded by a corporation that was critical of members of Congress," Kennedy wrote. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be a fiction and caricature; but fiction and caricature can be a powerful force."