Supreme Court opens floodgates for political spending


On January 21, the U. S. Supreme Court held that sections of federal law barring corporations, unions, and other groups from spending money to espouse their views about public issues and candidates for office were unconstitutional restrictions on First Amendment protected free speech, stating that: "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."

During Wednesday evening's State of the Union address the controversy surrounding this campaign finance related ruling by the Supreme Court reached into the homes of the nationwide audiences watching the speech when President Barack Obama took the perhaps unprecedented step of publicly rebuking a recent Supreme Court ruling while Associate Justice Samuel Alito, also unusually, visibly demurred.

The controversial 5-4 Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, grew out of a case brought by the makers and distributors of a scathing documentary film  attacking Hilary Clinton, which was produced to be aired during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. The Federal Election Commission ruled that because some of the money used to create/or distribute the film came from corporations and because it was to be aired late in the campaign and created during the time when it might have had the most impact on the election, and because it was, they decided, an unmistakable message to vote against her, the FEC viewed it as criminal.

In the ruling the Court asserted that the persons associating in Corporations, Unions, and other groups were exercising core protected First Amendment free speech rights-particularly as regards their right to spend money in support of political candidates and political issues. 

Echoing many campaign finance reform activists, President Obama said, in his State of the Union Address, that "The Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign companies -- to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities." On the other hand, ABC News reports that Politifact, the Pulitzer prize winning Web site of the St. Petersburg Times, states that current federal law prevents "a partnership, association, corporation, organization, or other combination of persons organized under the laws of or having its principal place of business in a foreign country" from making, "directly or indirectly," a donation or expenditure "in connection with a federal, state, or local election," to a political party committee or "for an electioneering communication." The implication is that these are laws that, presumably, would not be impacted by the Court decision.

The controversy promises to rage on with many lawmakers and the President calling for Congress to quickly pass statutes limiting the impact of the Court decision and equally vociferous professed First Amendment advocates and libertarians touting the decision as a triumph for free speech advocates and constitutional protections under the First Amendment.

Almost all agree that the ruling could have profound effects on the Fall 2010 federal, state, and local elections. Among concrete questions are those concerning the effects of the ruling and any consequential executive and legislative branch responses on the financing of U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate races, as well as the financing of state and local gubernatorial, legislative, and judicial election campaigns during the  2010 election cycle, There also are a growing host of questions and speculations about federal, state, and local jurisdictional responses and legal maneuverings during this important election year.

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