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Supreme Court to Hold Hearing On Corporate Influence in Elections

On Wednesday September 9, all three branches of the federal government will be engaged in discussion of highly significant public policy issues. The President will...
September 9, 2009

On Wednesday September 9, all three branches of the federal government will be engaged in discussion of highly significant public policy issues. The President will address Congress on healthcare reform (see above) and the Supreme Court will hold a hearing that carries the potential for rewriting the nation's campaign finance laws.

The Supreme Court will be deciding whether disposing of one case requires overturning two decisions that said government has an interest in restricting the political activities and speech of corporations. The case pits a conservative group's scathing movie about Hillary Rodham Clinton against federal campaign finance laws.

The case will test the role of stare decisis -- the High Court's custom of standing by its previous decisions. Two previous decisions are involved: the court's 1990 decision in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, in which it upheld a state law that said corporations could be barred from spending their profits to urge a candidate's election or defeat; and a 2003 decision upholding Congress's Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, in which the court ruled 5 to 4 that Congress may curtail corporate spending on advertising that mentions a candidate shortly before an election, even if it does not explicitly support or oppose that person.

Three current justices -- Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas -- have said Austin should be overturned, and all three said in McConnell v. FEC that McCain-Feingold violates the Constitution's guarantee of free speech. Those who favor the restrictions said the recognition that government may treat corporations and individuals differently when it comes to political spending dates back more than 100 years, to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.

What It Means to Agents:  If the court upholds current laws and does not reverse its previous decisions, there will be no impact. However, the court could either partially or fully overturn its previous precedents. Currently, corporations can influence elections through corporate PACs and contributions made by individuals, such as officers and employees. Overturning the ban on corporate contributions would grant corporations equal status as individuals under the Constitution for the purpose of influencing our nation's political process, thereby significantly increasing that influence. Arguably, that could decrease the relative influence of individuals. Such a change to our nation's political process would be monumental.