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Supremes do it again

Supremes do it again

Posted: Monday, February 8, 2010 8:01 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON — Those who followed the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts and believed him when he said it would be a very high bar for him to overturn Supreme Court decisions that had been in place and upheld over a period of time got a big surprise last week when the Roberts-led Court tossed out 100 years of precedence and opened the door for corporations and unions to contribute directly to political campaigns. Once again, we see which branch of government is most powerful: the unelected U.S. Supreme Court. It was another 5-4 decision that split down the ideological divide on the Court between left and right, with Justice Anthony Kennedy giving the conservatives the deciding fifth vote. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the dissenting view for the minority and predicted that the ruling opening the floodgates of money would reflect badly on the Court in the same way the 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling did by reaching a decision that could not be defended with jurisprudence. The Court could have ruled narrowly by declaring “Hillary the Movie,” a documentary produced by the conservative Citizens United, did not come under the purview of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The case before the court challenged the decision of the Federal Elections Commission that the 90-minute film could not be aired on television right before the 2008 Democratic primaries because it came under the heading of corporate political advertising that had been banned under the 2002 McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act. Instead, the Court used the case as a rocket launcher to overturn the ban in the 2002 law along with several earlier rulings that had been regarded as settled law when it came to the role of corporations in funding political campaigns. The Court framed its ruling as an affirmation of the First Amendment, saying that limiting the money that corporations and unions can spend on candidate advertising is an abridgement of free speech, adding heft in the marketplace to the familiar saying, “money talks.” The reaction from Democrats, beginning with President Obama, was a denunciation of the Court ruling and the prediction that more corporate money would further corrupt a political process already in the grip of moneyed special interests. Congressional Democrats vowed to draft legislation that would place restrictions on corporations that receive federal funds, one area where they might have some leverage. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, introduced legislation that would amend the Constitution to nullify the Court ruling, but that would take 67 votes in the Senate, a higher bar to reach for Democrats with their current 59 seats than Roberts faced in the 5-4 Court. Republicans for the most part heralded the Court ruling as a victory for free speech. They argued that McCain-Feingold never worked anyway, that money always finds its way into the political system, and with the lid off, corporations and unions alike can openly spend money directly to support candidates of their choosing. Advocates of the decision reached by the Court challenged the assumption that more corporate money in campaigns is necessarily a bad thing. They point out that the prospect of more television advertising sponsored by corporations and unions could help the beleaguered media industry. And with the availability of dollars to spend on TV spots, maybe, just maybe, candidates will buy long-form commercials and get their messages out in a way they never could before. Okay, that’s probably wishful thinking, but corporate and union sponsors who plunge into this year’s congressional elections in a bigger than usual way will have to identify themselves in their ads, and not every lawmakers will want to be endorsed for all to see by, say, Exxon. If the worst does come to pass, and corporate money overloads the system, there is always the Internet where money can talk for the voters, too, in small donations to candidates they like. That is after all how Obama got elected. Published in The Messenger 2.8.10

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