High court overturns ban on corporate political spending

DENVER — A U.S. Supreme Court decision has turned the nation’s campaign finance laws upside down.

In a 5-4 decision Thursday, the high court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that free speech laws prohibit congressional limits on corporations and labor unions from spending as much as they like in support or opposition of presidential and congressional candidates.

But the repercussions won’t stop there, an attorney for the Colorado Republican Party says. Ultimately, the ruling will reach governor and legislative candidates, particularly in the 24 states,  including Colorado, that have campaign finance laws that virtually mirror the federal government’s.

“It’s a pretty dramatic change to Colorado’s law,” said Ryan Call, an attorney for the Denver law firm of Hale Friesen and the chief legal counsel for the Colorado GOP.

Call said the case invalidates two key components of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law passed in 2002 and overturns prior high-court rulings on the subject, basically returning the nation to where it was on campaign finance before 1990.

While the ruling leaves in place a prohibition on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions, it allows them to run their own advertising on candidates right up to an election.

“Colorado’s campaign finance regime mirrors the federal one on most if not all key respects, including that ban on corporate spending for independent expenditures and using corporate dollars for electioneering communications,” Call said.

“This makes Colorado’s law along with the law of other states invalid, or at least provides the ability to invalidate them.”

Call said his main client along with several other GOP groups, such as the Colorado Republican Business Coalition and the Colorado Republican Women’s Group, are planning to file a lawsuit in state court challenging the Colorado law.

Mark Grueskin, an attorney who represents the Colorado Democratic Party, said the ruling isn’t going to change things much, because current law allows corporations to form special education groups that can advertise as much as they want.

He also said the GOP’s lawsuit is unnecessary, because the Colorado Legislature has little choice but to pass a bill complying with the ruling.

Additionally, Secretary of State Bernie Buescher has the ability to do the same administratively, he said.

“Knowing that the First Amendment does not protect these (bans) of political communications, no one in Colorado government could enforce the limits that also exist in Colorado law,” he said.

Grueskin said it’s unlikely Colorado voters will see more political ads, because corporations already advertise as much as they want through surrogate groups.

“Could you jam the airwaves any more than they were jammed in 2008 with political ads?” he asked.

“I don’t think so. There’s only so much of this resource of advertising time that can be bought and sold.”

Still, some folks are upset about the high court’s ruling.

Jenny Flannigan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said the ruling would allow big-moneyed corporations to inundate the airwaves with campaign ads promoting candidates who would do their bidding.

“This really flies in the face of the American people and certainly Coloradans, who have voted time and time again to place restrictions on corporate giving,” she said.

“This is going to further drown out the voice of Coloradans. It’s stunning how the court could say that corporate gifts don’t have influence. Industry is already controlling the debate in Washington.”

She said her group and others like it, which fight for financial limits on campaign spending and open government, will call on Congress to find another way, such as public financing of campaigns.

Flannigan said corporations already spend billions of dollars lobbying elected officials, and public financing would give ordinary citizens a voice.

“The history of campaign finance is at risk,” she said. “We’ve got to find ways to lift the voices of everyday citizens who just can’t compete with that corporate money.”

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