Legal experts and campaign reform advocates are decrying the U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 21 decision that reversed a years-long ban on corporate campaign spending, a move that opens the door for a deluge of negative campaign ads that could transform November’s mid-term elections.
“It’s not a happy day; it’s a very, disturbing, disturbing decision,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law.
The 5-4 ruling, in which Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor voiced dissent, will allow corporations and unions to use money from their coffers to directly fund ad campaigns in support of, or against, candidates. The ruling revokes certain statutes of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 and Republicans hailed it as a win for democracy.
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, serves as an affirmation of the constitutional rights provided to Americans under the first amendment,” Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “Free speech strengthens our democracy….we are pleased with today’s ruling.”
The reasons for Steele’s stance are “not a mystery,” Ifill told the AFRO. “This is a decision that supports corporate interests…. Those are the entities that have long been the clients of the Republican Party and many of the policies of the Republican Party reflect deference to those interests.”
Citizens United v. FEC arose out of a Federal Elections Commission ruling on the distribution of Hillary: The Movie, a 90-minute documentary released in January 2008 by Citizens United, a non-profit corporation. The movie was critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that voters should be free to choose their sources of information, whether reputable or not. “Those choices and assessments, however, are not for the Government to make,” he wrote. “The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Chief Justice John Roberts added that corporations and unions, like individuals, are allowed free speech under the Constitution. “The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer,” he wrote.
Ifill called the equation, “bizarre,” agreeing with Justice Stevens who wrote in his dissent that “the conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is…inaccurate.”
Additionally, Stevens wrote, because corporations may be owned by non-U.S. citizens, their interests may conflict with those of eligible voters. And, he added, because of their relative power, corporations will put a stranglehold on democracy. “When citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy,” he said, engendering disenchantment and apathy.
President Obama, whose successful presidential campaign flourished from small, individual donations, said the decision stifles those voices and said he has directed Congress to work on a way to get around the law.
“With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics,” Obama said in a statement. “This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington-while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.”
More importantly, the ruling undermines the reputation of the nation’s highest court, Ifill said.
“The legitimacy of the Court stems from the belief of average people that the Court will adhere to certain rules; that the Court will not simply operate on its own agenda. undermines the public’s belief in the restraint of the Court,” the professor said.
And sadly, Ifill said, there is little—if anything—the executive and legislative branches of government can do to overturn this decision.
“The Supreme Court as it relates to what is constitutional and what is not constitutional is the last word—the president or Congress doesn’t get to countermand that.”