WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dramatically upended campaign finance laws Thursday in a ruling that will send waves of corporate money into Florida and fuel the bitterly contested U.S. Senate Republican primary between Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio.
The 5-4 ruling reverses century-old limitations on corporate money in federal elections by prominently allowing businesses and labor unions to spend — as much as they want — directly in favor of or against candidates on TV or in literature, so long as the action is independent of the candidate and campaign.
"It's a landmark ruling, certainly one of the most important rulings the Supreme Court has made in the campaign finance area in the last generation," said Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Advocates cast the decision as a long overdue victory for free speech; critics predicted a wild west scenario where big business drowns out other voices.
"If the First Amendment has any force," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, "it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech." Voting with him were the court's other conservative members: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito.
Justice John Paul Stevens said in his dissent, "The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined him.
The decision leaves in place a prohibition on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions.
In Florida state races, corporations can make contributions to candidates and run independent ads. About 24 other states, however, have restrictions similar to the federal one and those could be threatened as well.
President Barack Obama and top Democrats on Capitol Hill voiced strong displeasure.
"It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans," Obama said.
The political ads could play a major role in elections this fall and, at the outset, seem to favor Republicans. Democrats, already facing a tough mid-term election cycle, were preparing legislation to enact new restrictions.
"This is the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case," said U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, who has filed bills to offset the changes.
Grayson took a seat formerly held by a Republican in 2008 and could be hurt by a flood of corporate money. He is one of several potentially vulnerable Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation.
The key Florida matchup this fall is the Republican primary pitting Crist and Rubio, and observers were divided over which candidate benefits more.
Rubio almost immediately heralded the decision as a "victory for those who truly value the freedoms outlined in our First Amendment." Crist did not offer reaction.
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The governor has been aligned with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who teamed with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin for a landmark 2002 bill barring union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.
The Supreme Court swept those restrictions aside Thursday.
McCain said he was disappointed and hoped there would be better disclosure rules.
Florida election experts had varying reaction. "When all the smoke clears, a lot more corporate and union money was ending up in elections than people like to think," said Republican election lawyer and lobbyist John French. "I don't think this was earthshaking."
Rich Heffley, a strategist aligned with Crist, agreed the ruling was good for free speech. But he fretted corporate money could diminish political parties and distract campaigns. A corporation may run an ad in favor of a candidate, for example, but that may not be the message the candidate wants to emphasize.
"It is potentially chaotic from a campaign perspective," Heffley said.
Mark Herron, a top Democratic elections lawyer, said the flood of corporate money would mainly benefit Republicans. Labor unions, which side with Democrats, can also use general funds to directly advocate for or against candidates. But corporate money far outweighs union clout in Florida, Herron said.
"You're going to see corporate interests pour huge sums of money into congressional and Senate elections to change the balance."
In the closely watched Rubio-Crist contest, Herron surmised that Rubio would benefit more. Crist, he said, has had a hot and cold relationship with utilities (Florida Power & Light is a prominent example) and signed the so-called "guns-to-work" bill, which was abhorred by business.
At the same time, Crist has long enjoyed support from corporations and forged ties through work as governor. He also holds — for one more year — the power of veto over the state budget.
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The case began when a conservative group, Citizens United, made a 90-minute movie that was very critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton as she sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Citizens United wanted to air ads for the anti-Clinton movie and distribute it through video-on-demand services on local cable systems during the 2008 primary campaign.
But federal courts said the movie looked and sounded like a long campaign ad, and therefore should be regulated like one.
The movie was advertised on the Internet, sold on DVD and shown in a few theaters. Campaign regulations do not apply to DVDs, theaters or the Internet.
The court first heard arguments in March, then asked for another round of arguments about whether corporations and unions should be treated differently from individuals when it comes to campaign spending.
Thursday's ruling was anticipated, but the reaction was no less dramatic.
"It's going to be the Wild, Wild West," said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican attorney who has represented several GOP presidential campaigns.
"Candidates and political parties are going to have to figure out how to make their voices heard in the really loud First Amendment symphony that's going to take place."
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.