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Maryland PIRG

Ruling: Influence peddling or free speech?

Supreme Court gives businesses, unions power in election ads
Erin Cunningham

Republicans are celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to relax campaign-finance laws regulating corporations and labor unions, while Democrats say Thursday's decision will allow companies to buy and sell elections.

What the two sides do agree on is that they need more time to digest what the decision — overturning decades of campaign-financing precedence — means for elections in Maryland and across the nation.

The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision allows corporations and labor unions to use their treasuries to pay for campaign ads, but keeps in place a ban on direct contributions to politicians or political parties. Corporations previously had to establish a political action committee and solicit individual donations to pay for campaign ads.

Under Thursday's ruling, corporations can use their own profits to fund ads supporting or attacking candidates.

The ruling also partially overturns the landmark campaign finance bill — championed by U.S. Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — by removing a restriction on airing corporation- and union-funded ads in the waning days of an election.

The decision will expand the role that corporations play in election financing, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

"It is essential that we fix this misstep by the courts before we see the landscape of elections financing washed away in a raging flash flood of corporate money," said Fielding Huseth, a Maryland PIRG advocate.

Audrey Scott, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, disagreed, saying the decision was "promising" and "exciting."

Scott and other leaders of both parties said the ruling appears to impact federal elections — not state or local races. However, Scott said Republicans were seeking a legal opinion and analyzing the more widespread implications of the Supreme Court decision.

Democrats are doing the same.

Susan Turnbull, who heads the Maryland Democratic Party, said she was waiting for an analysis from the party's attorneys before issuing a statement on the decision.

Maryland Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills said the Supreme Court ruling could determine whether he introduces legislation this year that would establish a voluntary public financing system for elections. Cardin has introduced the bill in the past.

"We're holding off until we can digest what the Supreme Court decision means," he said. "I don't know if and how that impacts our public campaign finance bill."

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) of University Park sponsored the Senate version of the bill in the past.

Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park criticized the court's decision Thursday, saying the ruling gives corporations the same rights as individual citizens.

"They're taking us from a nation controlled by ‘We the People' to a nation controlled by ‘We the Corporations,'" he said in a statement released by Maryland PIRG. "How can we old-fashioned, human-being citizens compete with hundreds of billions of dollars that corporations will be able to pump into our elections?"

Raskin also is a constitutional law professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Republicans disagreed, saying the decision strengthens free speech and First Amendment rights.

U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown — the only Republican representing Maryland in Congress — supports the court's decision, according to his spokeswoman, Lisa Wright.

Bartlett has long opposed the McCain-Feingold bill because of its restrictions on political expression, Wright said.

There is an argument for First Amendment rights on both sides, said Robert O'Neil, a professor of law emeritus at the University of Virginia and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Those who support the court's decision believe that political speech — whether from a corporation or an individual — is protected by the First Amendment, he said. Those who oppose the ruling believe that allowing corporations more flexibility in campaigning infringes on the freedoms of individual citizens.

There is time for Congress to change campaign finance law based on the court's decision before elections later this year, O'Neill said. However, he doubts Congress will take any action.

Some of Maryland's representatives in Congress did speak out Thursday against the ruling, including U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D).

U.S. Rep Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington also criticized the ruling during a press conference, calling Thursday a "very, very sad day for American democracy."

He cautioned that the decision would lead to an influx of special-interest money in elections.

"It will allow the biggest corporations of the United States to engage in the buying and selling of elections," Van Hollen said.

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