The Supreme Court overturned a century-old ruling on campaign finance limits Thursday in a 5-4 vote. The decision, which rules that corporations are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution, will allow corporations, unions, and other organizations to give money to political election campaigns without limit.
The decision was premised primarily on an interpretation of the law, which says corporations share some of the same rights as individual citizens.
“The Court has recognized that the First Amendment applies to corporations, e.g., First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti … and extended this protection to the context of political speech,” the decision read in part.
Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas voted in favor of the ruling. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor dissented.
Some members of Congress immediately decried the ruling, but tried to reassure their constituents that it’s not a closed case.
"It is important to note that the decision does not affect McCain-Feingold’s soft money ban, which will continue to prevent corporate contributions to the political parties from corrupting the political process,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in a statement.
Despite Feingold’s reassurances, he went on to warn over the potential fallout from the ruling.
“This decision was a terrible mistake,” he said. “The American people will pay dearly for this decision when, more than ever, their voices are drowned out by corporate spending in our federal elections.”
Feingold added that six years ago, “The court said that the prohibition on corporations and unions dipping into their treasuries to influence campaigns was ‘firmly embedded in our law.’”
Legislation to combat the decision is being promised by Feingold, who says he will work with colleagues to restore “critical restraints on corporate control of our elections.”
But Norman Dorsen, a professor at NYU’s school of law and former president of the ACLU, says it is not that simple.
“The decision is a constitutional decision,” said Mr. Dorsen. “The decision strikes down the law of Congress. You could have a constitutional amendment, but for the present time we’ll be living under this [law].”
Dorsen cautions about jumping to conclusions about what the ruling could mean, though.
“Some people, maybe even most people, think that the opening of the floodgates—as it’s sometimes called—to unlimited spending will have an impact on how people think about candidates,” he said. “We don’t know that and we don’t know how the balance will be put in terms of where the money will be spent.”
Even with that, however, Dorsen admits it could be a move that alters the balance between the haves and have-nots.
“There are risks that this will imbalance our democracy,” said Mr. Dorsen. “That it will put more power and influence in the hands of the people with more money.”
President Obama also issued a strongly worded statement on the decision.
“The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics,” stated President Obama, who called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
Obama also said that the ruling will give more power to special interests and their lobbyists, while undercutting the average American who takes part in the political process by making personal donations.
He promised that his administration will “get to work immediately with Congress on this issue” to respond to the ruling.
Several phone calls to the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor organization, and Wal-Mart were not returned for comment.