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Justices may end campaign finance ban on corporations

The high court delays a decision until next term on whether a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton can be regulated as a type of campaign ad.

June 30, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court signaled Monday that it might be ready to give corporations a free-speech right to spend their money to elect or defeat favored candidates.

In an unusual order, the justices said they were putting off until next term a decision over whether a politically charged film -- in this instance, "Hillary: The Movie" -- could be regulated as a type of campaign ad.

The justices agreed to raise the stakes and consider overruling past decisions that restricted election spending by corporations and unions. Those include a 6-year-old decision upholding the McCain-Feingold Act and its ban on corporate-funded broadcast ads before a federal election.

The "Hillary: The Movie" case is expected to be reargued Sept. 9.

The announcement could increase pressure on the Senate to approve the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the high court before the August congressional recess.

Advocates of the nation's campaign finance laws denounced the move Monday as a "radical step" that could allow corporate money to flow into political races.

The ban on corporate spending goes back a century. In 1907, Congress prohibited corporations from funding the campaigns of candidates for Congress and the presidency. In 1947, the ban was extended to spending on federal elections generally. It also was extended to include unions.

But since the mid-1970s, the court has said the 1st Amendment's freedom of speech guarantee limits the government from restricting certain spending on politics and elections.

Since the arrival of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the court has had a five-member majority that leans in favor of the free-speech view and against campaign finance laws. So far, they have scaled back the McCain-Feingold Act in two decisions.

The new case could allow the conservative majority to sweep aside restrictions on corporate and union spending.

Fred Wertheimer, an activist and longtime defender of campaign funding limits, said it would be "the height of judicial activism" if the court were to strike down the McCain-Feingold Act.

"At stake now," he said, "is whether the Supreme Court is going to take the radical step of striking down the 60-year-old ban on corporate expenditures and open the floodgates to immense amounts of corporate wealth being used to directly influence federal campaigns."


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