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Money Makes Elections Go Round

Money Makes Elections Go Round

courtdaylogo.pngYesterday, in one of the most far-reaching and activist Supreme Court decisions in years, five Justices unraveled campaign finance law, giving corporations and unions more power to influence elections. The antagonistically divisive 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC struck down a part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, which (among other provisions) regulated corporate spending in elections.

Under McCain-Feingold, corporations were not able to spend any funds to influence electoral politics, unless they created an independent Political Action Committee for which they solicited separate funds. However, deciding that corporations in this context were tantamount to people, the Supreme Court ruled that this provision was a violation of the First Amendment because it limits a corporation's free speech.

In effect, the Court declared, in a decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, that the government cannot limit the amount of funds that corporations and unions spend to advocate for or against a candidate. Therefore, while these organizations are still prohibited from donating directly to a candidate, they can use as much of their money as they wish to create materials and advertisements that directly attack or support a specific candidate. This ruling is expected to drastically change the conduct of electioneering, giving well-funded corporations unprecedented influence.

The decision, which came after an unusual re-hearing of a case initially heard last term, was announced at a special sitting of the Court. Writing for the minority, Justice John Paul Stevens argued passionately, in a decision he read aloud from the bench, that corporations are distinct from individuals and therefore should not enjoy the same rights, including the right to free speech.

This decision elucidates, yet again, the significance of changes in personnel on the Supreme Court. Just a few years ago in 2003, the Justices upheld, in another 5-4 decision, the same provision that was struck down this week. Justice Alito's replacement of Justice O'Connor provided the fifth vote necessary to overturn the 2003 precedent and gut existing law.

The Reform Movement has been active in efforts to reduce the influence of wealthy donors, which comes at the expense of our democratic process. The Movement played a significant role in the faith community's support for the McCain-Feingold legislation as well as the 2003 Supreme Court decision upholding the legislation.

A legislative "fix" on this issue has already been floated and while no one yet knows exactly what it will look like (some are calling for a Constitutional amendment), we know it must happen quickly--ideally before the 2010 election cycle. We at the RAC will continue to closely follow the issue and make clear our position that a democracy of the people should be built upon the strength and passion of a person's voice, not the size of their wallet.

Published: 1/22/2010

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