WASHINGTON — - The Supreme Court overturned a century-old restriction on corporations using their money to sway federal elections Thursday and ruled companies have a free-speech right to spend as much as they wish to persuade voters to elect or defeat candidates.
In a 5-4 decision, the court's conservative bloc said corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals and, for that reason, the government cannot stop corporations from spending freely to help their favored candidates win elections.
The decision, which overrules two previous decisions, is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Before Thursday, he had espoused narrow rulings whenever possible and had pledged to stick with the court's precedents.
The outcome is likely to have an immediate impact on this year's midterm elections to Congress, including the vulnerable House seat held by Maryland first-term Democrat Frank Kratovil. Corporations, corporate-funded groups and, presumably, labor unions can pour money into ad campaigns targeted at key races for the House or Senate.
While Republicans praised the decision as a victory for wide-open political speech, Democrats slammed it as a win for big money at the expense of ordinary voters. They were led by President Barack Obama. He called the ruling "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." He promised to seek "a forceful response to this decision" from Congress.
Republican National Chairman Michael S. Steele joined others in his party in praising the ruling. The former Maryland lieutenant governor said Republicans were pleased that the court had recognized that corporations and other organizations "have the freedom to speak on public issues."
While Congress cannot reverse a First Amendment ruling by the Supreme Court, some Democrats talked about seeking legislation that would require corporations to get approval from their shareholders before spending money on politics.
Until Thursday, corporations and unions were barred from spending their own treasury funds on broadcast ads, campaign workers or billboards that urge the election or defeat of a federal candidate. This restriction dates to 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to forbid corporations, railroads and national banks from putting money into federal races. After World War II, Congress extended this ban to labor unions. More recently, the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002 added an extra limit on corporate- and union-funded broadcast ads in the month before an election. They were prohibited if they simply mentioned a candidate running for office.
Thursday's decision struck down all these restrictions on "corporate political speech."
"The government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the court. While the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission dealt only with corporations, the ruling will likely free unions as well.
Two significant prohibitions were left standing. Corporations and unions cannot give money directly to the campaigns of federal candidates. And the court affirmed current federal rules which require the sponsors of political ads to disclose who paid for them. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on these points. Many political analysts and election-law experts predict the court's decision freeing corporations will send millions of extra dollars flooding into this fall's contests for Congress. And they predict Republicans will be the main beneficiaries.
Thursday's decision was supported by five justices who were Republican nominees: Kennedy, Roberts and Thomas along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The dissenters included the three Democratic appointees: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. They joined a 90-page dissenting opinion written by 89-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens.
Speaking in a halting voice, he read part of his dissent in the courtroom Thursday.
He called the decision "a radical change in the law ... that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions - and the narrow interests they represent - in determining who will hold public office. ... Corporations are not human beings. Corporations can't vote. They can't run for office," he said. He predicted the ruling "will cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress and the states to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process."
The ruling, though long forecast, displayed a schism of opinion on the court about the meaning of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech. The majority said the Constitution broadly protected discussion and debate on politics, regardless of who was paying for the speech.