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Court’s Decision: Keep FactCheck Busy

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that corporations can spend as freely as they like in federal elections, a decision that could bring a flood of new ads expressly favoring or opposing candidates in the congressional midterm elections this year.

The opinion in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission throws out a 63-year-old law that attempted to restrain the influence of business and labor in elections and overturns two of the Court’s own decisions. Corporations will now be able to spend freely from their treasuries to buy ads and otherwise try to influence voters, though they still can’t give directly to candidates. The earlier restrictions violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the Court said in an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, rejecting the notion that corporate speech could be treated differently from individual speech:

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: We find no basis for the proposition that, in the context of political speech, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers. … All speakers, including individuals and the media, use money amassed from the economic marketplace to fund their speech. The First Amendment protects the resulting speech, even if it was enabled by economic transactions with persons or entities who disagree with the speaker’s ideas.

The Court also struck down the portion of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law that barred corporate- or union-financed issue ads in the last 60 days before an election. So one consequence of the landscape-shifting decision could be a dramatic increase in the number of ads running right up until Election Day.

The decision also threatens similar corporate and union spending limits now imposed by 24 states. Justice John Paul Stevens, whose dissent was joined by the three other justices on the more liberal side of the spectrum, predicted that the decision "unleashes the floodgates" for corporate money in gubernatorial elections, in state legislative races and even in elections for state supreme court justices.

Stevens dissent, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: At a time when concerns about the conduct of judicial elections have reached a fever pitch, … the Court today unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union general treasury spending in these races. …[A]fter today, [States] may no longer have the ability to place modest limits on corporate electioneering even if they believe such limits to be critical to maintaining the integrity of their judicial systems.