In a stunning reversal of the nation's federal campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday that free-speech rights permit groups like corporations and labor unions to directly spend on political campaigns, prompting the White House to pledge "forceful" action to undercut the decision.
In a written statement, President Obama said the high court had "given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics." He called it a "major victory" for Wall Street, health insurance companies and other interests which would diminish the influence of Americans who give small donations. Obama pledged to "work immediately" with Congress to develop a "forceful response."
"The public interest requires nothing less," Obama said.
Siding with filmmakers of "Hillary: The Movie," who were challenged by the Federal Election Commission on their sources of cash to pay for the film, the court overturned a 20-year-old ruling that banned corporate and labor money. The decision threatens similar limits imposed by 24 states.
The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.
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Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the main opinion, which reads in part that there is "no basis for allowing the government to limit corporate independent expenditures."
"There is no basis for the proposition that, in the political speech context, the government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers," he wrote. "The government may regulate corporate speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether."
Dissenters included Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
"The notion that the First Amendment dictated [today's ruling] is, in my judgment, profoundly misguided," Stevens wrote for the others.
"In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it," he added.
The ruling is sure to send a jolt to political campaigns throughout the country that are gearing up for the 2010 midterm elections. It will also impact the 2012 presidential race and federal elections to come.