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Supreme Court to Revisit Election Financing in Potential Landmark Case

FILE -- In this April 30, 2008 file photo, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts speaks during a Vickers Lecture at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)
FILE -- In this April 30, 2008 file photo, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts speaks during a Vickers Lecture at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File) (Orlin Wagner - AP)
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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009

More than 100 years of restrictions on corporate support of political candidates will be at stake next week when the Supreme Court considers whether a quirky case about a film denouncing Hillary Rodham Clinton should lead to a rewrite of the way federal elections are financed.

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In an unusual hearing in the midst of their summer recess, the justices will decide whether to move beyond the particulars of "Hillary: The Movie" to more profound questions about the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and how that squares with political spending.

The justices will consider casting aside previous rulings that uphold laws restricting corporate support of political candidates.

The court ruled in 1990 that corporations, because of their "immense aggregations of wealth," possessed a unique ability to drown out the voices of individuals in the nation's political conversation. That precedent was reinforced in 2003 when the court upheld the federal campaign finance law that limits the electoral influence of corporations, unions and special interest groups.

Conservative justices have chafed at the restrictions, especially in the federal legislation commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act. And they have been joined by like-minded colleagues in Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

That the court would overturn a decision made as recently as 2003 has advocates of campaign finance reform erupting about "judicial activism" and speaking in apocalyptic terms.

"It would unleash corporations to use their massive wealth to overwhelm the federal system, with disastrous consequences for the country," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance reformer who now leads Democracy 21, a watchdog group.

He imagines corporations demanding fealty from lawmakers on health-care reform or auto industry bailouts with the promise of millions of dollars for their campaigns -- or the threat of the same amount used to finance a challenger.

Others see the potential for partisan advantage.

"If Republicans were wondering how their 2012 presidential candidate is going to compete against President Obama's $600 million fundraising juggernaut, the Supreme Court seems poised to provide an answer: unlimited corporate spending supporting the Republican candidate, or attacking Obama," Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, wrote for the online magazine Slate.

But Bradley A. Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who has urged the court to overturn the precedents, said that the "sky-is-falling rhetoric of the other side is simply not true."

Smith, a Republican appointee to the commission who is now a law professor at Capital University in Ohio, said there is no evidence that corporations would spend millions of dollars targeting specific lawmakers.


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