Law & Courts

High Court Removes Limits on Political Spending by Corporations, Unions

By Mark Walsh — January 21, 2010 2 min read
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A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court today overturned limits on spending by corporations and labor organizations, including teachers’ unions, on political communications.

The court in a 5-4 decision overruled two key precedents on campaign finance and struck down key provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as the McCain-Feingold law.

“Our nation’s speech dynamic is changing, and informative voices should not have to circumvent onerous restrictions to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (Case No. 08-205). That part of his opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in dissent for the court’s liberal wing, said the majority’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”

“At bottom, the court’s opinion is ... a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt,” said Justice Stevens’s dissent, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

There was no immediate reaction from the teachers’ unions or other labor organizations.

The AFL-CIO, of which the American Federation of Teachers is a member, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing limits on union political speech. The court should “recognize no compelling governmental interest in criminalizing independent union electoral speech,” the brief said, referring to provisions in the McCain-Feingold law that make it a crime for corporations or unions to use their general treasury funds on “electioneering communications” or for speech advocating the election or defeat of a candidate close to election time.

The National Education Association had declined to file a brief in the case, saying last year it was concerned that removing limits on campaign speech would boost corporations more than labor groups.

Update: The American Federation of Teachers is not necessarily on the same page as the AFL-CIO in the case. “The ruling is a victory for corporate special interests and a setback for those of us who supported campaign finance reform and believed that there should be a level playing field in political races,” AFT spokesman John See told me.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.