Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

'Hillary' case: the legal stakes

Three Supreme Court justices have already announced their willingness to overturn a pair of key precedents.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 2009

David Bossie, leader of Citizens United and producer of "Hillary: The Movie", in this March 20 file photo.

Evan Vucci / AP / File


On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court is set to hold an 80-minute argument session that will probe one of the thorniest areas of the ongoing debate over the influence of money in politics.

Skip to next paragraph

At issue is whether the high court should overturn two key legal precedents justifying restrictions on corporate speech during federal elections.

Specifically, the justices are examining to what extent corporations enjoy a First Amendment free-speech right to engage in political speech by producing broadcast commercials and films in the days and weeks before an election.

The case revolves around a decision by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to block video-on-demand broadcasts of a conservative group's unflattering examination of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The 90-minute film is called "Hillary: The Movie."

The group, Citizens United, wanted to show it during the 2008 election season.

The FEC ruled that the film was the equivalent of a campaign-attack advertisement that could be regulated under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The group said the action amounted to government censorship of protected political speech.

The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, was argued and submitted to the court for decision this past March. But in late June, the court asked the parties to submit new briefs addressing broader First Amendment issues, including why the justices shouldn't overturn two related legal precedents established in 1990 and 2003. Both precedents expanded the constitutional justification for strict limits on corporate spending in federal elections.

Campaign-finance restrictions are generally justified as a means to combat quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of such corruption. The concern is that corporations might buy influence and receive special favors if large amounts of corporate money are instrumental in electing or defeating a particular candidate.

In 1990, the high court embraced a different justification for limiting corporate involvement in elections. Instead of focusing on the corrupting influence of corporate dollars on candidates, the court said such limits could be justified under the Constitution to prevent a corrupting influence on the election process itself.

In a case called Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the majority justices declared that the government had a compelling interest in preventing corporations from using their massive financial resources to drown out other voices in an election. The Constitution, the court said, permits the government to enforce a level playing field during campaign seasons to prevent wealthy corporate interests from distorting the political landscape.