If supporters of federal curbs on political campaign spending by corporations were counting on Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., to hesitate to strike down such restrictions, they could take no comfort from the Supreme Court’s 93-minute hearing Wednesday on that historic question. Despite the best efforts of four other Justices to argue for ruling only very narrowly, the strongest impression was that they had not convinced the two members of the Court thought to be still open to that approach. At least the immediate prospect was for a sweeping declaration of independence in politics for companies and advocacy groups formed as corporations.
The Court probed deeply into Congress’ reasoning in its decades-long attempt to restrict corporate influence in campaigns for the Presidency and Congress, in a special sitting to hear a second time the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (08-205). At issue was whether the Court was ready to overturn two of its precedents — one from 1990, the other from 2003 — upholding such limitations.
From all appearances, not one of the nine Justices — including the newest Justice, Sonia Sotomayor — appeared to move away from what their positions had been expected in advance to be. In her first argument, Sotomayor fervently joined in the effort to keep any resulting decision narrow — seemingly, the minority position but one she had been assumed to hold.
Three Justices — Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — have explicitly urged the Court to overturn the two precedents that sustained congressional limits on campaign financing by corporations and labor unions. Kennedy and Thomas only seemed to reinforce that position on Wednesday; Thomas remained silent, but had given no indication earlier of a change of mind.
That lineup has always put the focus, as the Court volunteered to take on new constitutional questions in the Citizens United case, on the Chief Justice and Justice Alito. While both have been skeptical in the past about campaign finance laws, supporters of such laws had fashioned an array of arguments they hoped would lead Roberts and Alito to shy away from casting their votes to create a majority to free corporations to spend their own treasury money to influence federal elections. None of those arguments seemed to appeal to either Roberts or Alito.