By Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY
The Supreme Court this morning reversed a century-old Montana law limiting corporate political spending. In doing so, the high court reaffirmed its controversial 2010 decision that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts to influence the nation's elections.
In the 5-4 vote, the court's conservative majority said its Citizens United decision extends to candidates seeking state and local offices and maintained corporations have a First Amendment right to spend independently to call for the election or defeat of candidates.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a long-time foe of campaign-spending restrictions, hailed the decision "as another important victory for freedom of speech."
By striking down the Montana law without a hearing, the majority ignored the request by two of the court's liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who had called for a re-examination of Citizens United. They had argued that political spending since the 2010 ruling made it hard to maintain that independent corporate spending has not given "rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."
Super PACs -- freed by Citizens United and a related federal court decision to take unlimited corporate and union money -- have spent more than $130 million to influence the presidential and congressional elections. Most of the spending, however, has come from wealthy individuals who are pumping millions of dollars into advertising to help their favorite candidates. Under current law, corporations and unions cannot give directly to federal candidates, and individuals can give no more than $5,000 directly to a candidate for the primary and general election.
Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at University of California-Irvine, said a new hearing by the court could have led to further erosion of campaign-finance restrictions.
"This is a court which has shown no reason to doubt the correctness of Citizens United, despite the public outcry," Hasen told USA TODAY in an e-mail. "If the court considered the case further, it could have weakened campaign finance law even more, such as by casting doubt on the constitutionality of limits on contributions to candidates."
Campaign-finance watchdogs vowed to continue their push to fight the court's decision. Among their efforts: trying to build support for a Constitutional amendment.
"Citizens and the nation are not going to accept the Supreme Court imposed campaign finance system that allows our government to be auctioned off to billionaires, millionaires, corporate funders and other special interests using political money to buy influence and results," Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement. "A major national campaign finance reform movement will begin immediately after the 2012 elections."