Supreme Court Seems Poised To Overturn Campaign Finance Precedents
Based on the oral argument that occurred before the Supreme Court today, it seems pretty clear that the Court is prepared to strike down many restrictions on political advocacy that it had previously allowed:
WASHINGTON — There seemed little question after the argument in an important campaign finance case at the Supreme Court on Wednesday that the makers of a slashing political documentary about Hillary Rodham Clinton were poised to win. The only open question was how broad that victory would be.
Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, all but said that a loss for the government would be acceptable, so long as it was on narrow grounds.
She suggested that the Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group that produced the documentary, “Hillary: The Movie,” may not be the sort of corporation to which campaign finance restrictions should apply. The group lost a lawsuit last year against the Federal Election Commission in which it had sought permission to distribute the film on a cable television service.
Theodore B. Olson, a lawyer for Citizens United, argued for a broad ruling that would reverse two precedents allowing the government to restrict the campaign speech of all sorts of corporations notwithstanding the First Amendment.
That prompted a question from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, her first as a Supreme Court justice. “Are you giving up on your earlier arguments that there are statutory interpretations that would avoid the constitutional question?” she asked Mr. Olson.
Indeed, it would not be hard for the court to rule in favor of Citizens United by interpreting or narrowing the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which bans the broadcast, cable or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general election.
The law, as narrowed by a 2007 Supreme Court decision, applies to communications ”susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”
The court could say, for instance, that the law was not meant to address 90-minute documentaries like the one at issue. It could say that the way Citizens United wanted to distribute the documentary, on a cable video-on-demand service, was not covered by the law. Or it could, as Ms. Kagan suggested, carve out some kinds of corporations.
Mr. Olson indicated that he was prepared to accept any sort of victory but that the court would have to confront the larger question soon enough.
Arguing on behalf of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, Floyd Abrams reminded the court that it could have decided New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 decision that revolutionized the law of libel, on quite narrow grounds. When First Amendment rights are in danger, Mr. Abrams said, bold action is sometimes required.
Lyle Dennison agrees that at least two campaign finance precedents would seem to be in jeopardy:
If supporters of federal curbs on political campaign spending by corporations were counting on Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., to hesitate to strike down such restrictions, they could take no comfort from the Supreme Court’s 93-minute hearing Wednesday on that historic question. Despite the best efforts of four other Justices to argue for ruling only very narrowly, the strongest impression was that they had not convinced the two members of the Court thought to be still open to that approach. At least the immediate prospect was for a sweeping declaration of independence in politics for companies and advocacy groups formed as corporations.
The Court probed deeply into Congress’ reasoning in its decades-long attempt to restrict corporate influence in campaigns for the Presidency and Congress, in a special sitting to hear a second time the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (08-205). At issue was whether the Court was ready to overturn two of its precedents — one from 1990, the other from 2003 — upholding such limitations.
From all appearances, not one of the nine Justices — including the newest Justice, Sonia Sotomayor — appeared to move away from what their positions had been expected in advance to be. In her first argument, Sotomayor fervently joined in the effort to keep any resulting decision narrow — seemingly, the minority position but one she had been assumed to hold.
Three Justices — Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — have explicitly urged the Court to overturn the two precedents that sustained congressional limits on campaign financing by corporations and labor unions. Kennedy and Thomas only seemed to reinforce that position on Wednesday; Thomas remained silent, but had given no indication earlier of a change of mind.
You can listen to the full audio of today’s oral argument here.