Supreme Court eyes campaign finance laws

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in a case that could reverse major gains made in recent decades to reduce the influence of corporate money on federal elections.

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At first blush, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission appears to present relatively narrow, technical questions about the definition of terms under the federal campaign finance law. But after hearing oral argument in the case last Spring, the Supreme Court decided that rather than simply rule on the immediate questions before it, it wanted the lawyers to argue more broadly whether the court should go further and, reversing previous precedents, invalidate corporate campaign restrictions on the grounds that they infringe upon corporations’ rights to free speech.

In a highly unusual move, the court asked the lawyers to re-brief and re-argue the case, focusing on this critical constitutional question. The court has convened a special session, a month earlier than usual, to hear those arguments. If a majority of the court agrees to reverse those precedents, experts say the court could open federal campaigns to a flood of corporate funding, radically altering American politics and the nature of electoral democracy for the foreseeable future.

The case also highlights the importance of Supreme Court appointments. Although the court’s newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, is expected to rule with the more liberal wing of the court to uphold existing campaign finance restrictions, the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Justice Samuel Alito by George W. Bush appears to be the reason the court is even considering such a radical shift.

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Daphne Eviatar

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