Supreme Court rehears campaign finance arguments

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] reheard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Wednesday in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [oral argument transcript, PDF; Cornell LII backgrounder] to determine whether two precedent cases that uphold restraints on corporate election spending should be overturned. The two cases, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission [Oyez backgrounders], upheld the facial validity of Section 203 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) [text, PDF], which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) [official website] argues allows them to regulate the release of and advertising for a 90-minute documentary questioning then-Senator Hillary Clinton's qualifications to serve as US president. Petitioner Citizens United [advocacy website], a non-profit conservative advocacy corporation that produced the film, appealed on broad First Amendment grounds a decision [opinion, PDF] by the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website], which held that the movie was "electioneering communication" within the meaning of BCRA. At oral argument [recorded audio], counsel for Citizens United argued, "the most fundamental right that we can exercise in a democracy under the First Amendment is dialogue and communication about political candidates. We have wrapped up that freedom, smothered that freedom, with the most complicated set of regulations and bureaucratic controls." Counsel for the FEC argued that the Court show follow precedent, saying, "For over 100 years Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections and this Court has never questioned that judgment." Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito seemed open to removing federal limits on corporate campaign spending, while Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor implied that they would issue a much narrower ruling. Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia have already said that they support overturning Austin and McConnell.

The Court originally heard oral arguments in March, but ordered a rehearing [JURIST reports] at the end of the 2008 term. The government had argued the Court's decisions in McConnell and Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life [opinion, PDF] allowed them to regulate the video because it was funded by a corporation and could not reasonably be interpreted as anything other than an appeal to vote against Clinton. Citizens United argued that the movie was the kind of "robust, uninhibited debate about a subject of intense political interest" that the First Amendment was designed to protect.

 

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