In ruling last week that corporations are free to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns, the Supreme Court overturned more than a century of well-considered precedent and ignored stacks of evidence compiled in congressional hearings regarding the pernicious influence of money in politics.
Ever since 1907, campaign finance laws have forbidden corporate spending in candidate elections, extending the ban to unions in the 1940s.
Time and again Congress has tried to tighten laws governing excessive spending because of its potential for corrupting the political process. Republican Sen. John McCain rightly scoffed at the "extreme naivete" of the justices who blithely ignored reality while insisting that corporations should have the right to spend as they please.
Justice John Paul Stevens properly called this decision a radical departure from established law and indignantly accused the five justices in the majority of seeking to impose their own ideological agenda on the court. The majority included Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who assured Congress at his confirmation hearings that he respected precedent and believed in the concept of judicial restraint.
That's hard to discern from this activist decision, which was a legal overreach on several grounds.
By declaring that corporations have First Amendment rights similar to individuals, the court broke new ground that clearly rejects previous readings of the Constitution. There is simply nothing in the First Amendment that would suggest that the framers intended to protect the rights of corporations to spend freely in elections.
Further, corporations are not exactly muzzled when it comes to political races. Although they cannot contribute directly to candidates, a ban which still stands, they can fund campaign ads through political action committees that use regulated donor money.
With the new decision they are free to use corporate general treasury funds.
The Court could have upheld the right of Citizens United, a conservative group, that wanted to air the documentary in question -- a scathing attack on Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign -- by striking down a narrow provision of the existing McCain-Feingold campaign spending law that contains an overly vague definition of campaign ads. Instead, the Court opened the floodgates to corporate spending in political campaigns.
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