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Roberts Court rulings on campaign finance reveal shifting makeup, forceful role

This year's elections have seen a tidal wave of campaign spending by outside groups, many of whom do not disclose their donors. That has more to do with disclosure decisions by the FEC and the Internal Revenue Service than with the specifics of the Citizens United decision, experts say.

But critics of the ruling say it provided a psychological boost for corporate executives nervous about the legality of their role in supporting or opposing candidates. The midterm elections have also shown the justices' lack of familiarity with the realities of campaign fundraising and disclosure laws, they say.

Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who was the attorney for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaigns, said there was already a "boatload of spending" by corporate interests in elections before Citizens United. But the ruling made clear that there were no legal obstacles to their participation, he said.

"Lawyers understood before, but boards of directors and CEOs are cautious," said Potter, now president of the Campaign Legal Center, which supports campaign finance reform. "Citizens United put a Supreme Court Good-Housekeeping-seal-of-approval on corporations being allowed in elections.

"After Citizens United, it was almost like their patriotic duty."

The debate over the decisions echoes that of the ideologically divided justices themselves.

Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, made Citizens United the last great dissent of many he wrote in 35 years on the court.

"While American democracy is imperfect," Stevens wrote in his 90-page opinion, "few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, but colleague Antonin Scalia took up his pen to specifically answer Stevens.

"To exclude or impede corporate speech is to muzzle the principal agents of the modern free economy," he wrote. "We should celebrate rather than condemn the addition of this speech to the public debate."

A shift on the court

Another former FEC chairman, Bradley Smith, is so celebratory that he has to guard against being "triumphal."

Smith and others founded the Center for Competitive Politics to oppose "so-called reformers' efforts to limit campaign contributions, taxpayer funded political campaigns, the 'fairness doctrine' in talk radio and other limits on citizens' ability to support the candidates and causes of their choice," according to the group's mission statement.

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