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Supreme Court Hears Campaign Finance Arguments

The Supreme Court convened Wednesday for a special hearing on campaign finance rules. Marcia Coyle reports.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, today's Supreme Court arguments about a major campaign finance case. Gwen Ifill has our story.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Today was round two for a case involving an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary produced during the 2008 presidential campaign.

    Last spring, the justices declined to rule on whether broadcasting the film violated campaign finance regulations. Instead, they asked the lawyers to come back to court, this time to argue the virtue of rolling back campaign finance laws entirely.

    Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was at the court today, and the court released audiotapes of what turned out to be lively arguments, Marcia.

    So how do we go from a case that involved this movie called "Hillary: The Movie," how did that morph into a huge assault on campaign finance law?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, it was a surprise, basically, to, I think, many people. We were expecting a decision on whether the McCain-Feingold act's provision on broadcast ads that advocate the election or defeat of a candidate applied to this particular movie in June.

    And in June, instead, the court issued the order for a number of — well, recent years, a number of justices have voiced skepticism about campaign finance laws and their constitutionality under the First Amendment. And so the court, I think responding to some of those justices' concerns, issued the order, asking the parties in this case to address whether it should overrule in whole or in part two key precedents, one from 1990 and another from 2003, that essentially banned the use of general treasury funds by corporations and unions in campaign spending.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So it would roll back everything — potentially, it could roll back all these fundraising limits we've seen put in place over the years.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, as it relates to corporate and union expenditures, and I'm talking here about indirect spending. There are limits on direct contributions to candidates, and they would still stand, but this is just using general treasury funds.

    Right now, the law allows corporations and unions to speak in campaigns through political action committees, which they can create but have to be funded by individual contributions. Corporations and unions may not use general treasury funds. So that's what is at stake here, a lot more money.

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