The U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision on campaign finance laws Thursday that opens the way for corporations and labor unions to have an even greater impact on the U.S. elections process.
A sharply divided Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four, struck down campaign finance laws going back decades that had imposed limits on political contributions from corporations. The ruling is also expected to apply to labor unions and activist groups.
The high court ruling could open the money floodgates for corporations and unions, making it easier for them to run their own campaign ads on behalf of or against political candidates. In the 2008 election cycle alone, nearly six billion dollars was spent on all federal campaigns for president and Congress.
The high court's five-member conservative majority equated limits on campaign contributions from corporations with constitutionally unacceptable limits on free speech. Justice Anthony Kennedy said that limits on political speech were unjustified, and the majority struck down laws that had placed limits on the amount of money corporations and unions could spend on election campaigns.
Conservative and libertarian groups welcomed the Supreme Court decision, including Steve Simpson with the Institute for Justice. He spoke to reporters in front of the Supreme Court.
"The Supreme Court recognized today that the purpose of the First Amendment is to allow individuals and Americans to speak out as loudly and as robustly as they please," he said. "That applies whether an individual chooses to speak out alone or whether he chooses to associate with others and speak out as a group."
The court's liberal four-member minority opposed the change. In his written dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.
A written statement from President Obama at the White House said the high court's decision opens the way to a stampede of special interest money in American politics.
Among those speaking out in opposition was Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
"Today's ruling, decided by the slimmest of majorities, guts our system of free and fair elections," he said. "The bottom line is this. The Supreme Court has just predetermined the winners of next November's elections. It won't be Republicans. It won't be Democrats. It will be corporate America."
The high court ruling does not change a ban on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and labor unions that originated back in 1907.
Government watchdog groups that monitor corruption and the influence of special interests said the Supreme Court ruling opens the way for corporations and labor unions to exert even more influence on the elections process.
Bob Edgar is president of the monitoring group Common Cause:
"We need to recognize that money has influenced the debate here in Washington for too long," said Edgar. "All you have to do is look at the housing crisis, the investment crisis, the banking crisis. Even this health care debate was already tainted by how much money had flooded into the system. The elected officials in the House and Senate are going to end up serving special interests even more than they do today and not the public's interest."
The ruling will apply to this year's congressional midterm elections in November and could lead to a barrage of corporate and union sponsored television ads during the campaign that were previously restricted.
The case stemmed from a conservative group's challenge of campaign finance laws as part of an effort to promote a movie critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008.