Published Jan. 24, 2010|Updated Jan. 26, 2010

New York Times

With a single, disastrous 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court's conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.

The ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission radically reverses well-established law and erodes a wall that has stood for a century between corporations and electoral politics. (The ruling also frees up labor unions to spend, though they have far less money.)

The majority is deeply wrong on the law. Most wrongheaded of all is its insistence that corporations are just like people and entitled to the same First Amendment rights. It is an odd claim, since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.

Congress and members of the public who care about fair elections and clean government need to mobilize right away. Congress should repair the presidential public finance system and create another one for congressional elections to help ordinary Americans contribute to campaigns. It should also enact a law requiring publicly traded corporations to get the approval of their shareholders before spending on political campaigns.

These would be important steps, but they will not be enough. The real solution lies in getting the court's ruling overturned.

Washington Post

This result was unnecessary because the court's conservative majority - including supposed exemplars of judicial modesty - lunged to make a broad constitutional ruling when narrower grounds were available. It was wrong because nothing in the First Amendment dictates that corporations must be treated identically to people. And it was dangerous because corporate money, never lacking in the American political process, may now overwhelm both the contributions of individuals and the faith they may harbor in their democracy.

The conclusion that corporations have free-speech protections - and they do - does not mandate that they be treated identically to actual persons. Corporations and labor unions, which by implication now also will be free to spend without limit, have not been "censored" or "banned" from engaging in political speech, as the court claimed; rather, they have been required to spend through political action committees, which raise money in limited amounts from employees and members. Reasonable limits on their electoral spending recognized what is obvious to anyone who has not gone to law school: There is a difference between a corporate person and a real person.

On a federal level, Congress could take steps to ameliorate the decision's impact, such as imposing stronger rules against coordination between campaigns and outside groups or lifting limits on the amount that political parties can spend in conjunction with their candidates. But the damage of Thursday's ruling, under the false flag of free speech, will not be easily repaired.

Los Angeles Times

According to one campaign reform group, the U.S. Supreme Court created "a disaster for the American people" by ruling Thursday that corporations could spend money out of their own corporate pocketbooks on independent advertisements endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

We hope that's an exaggeration. But the 5-4 decision certainly will complicate the effort to reduce the corrupting influence of special interest money in campaigns. What's most disturbing is that the court could have resolved the issue before it - whether Congress erred in 2002 when it restricted "issue advertising" in the weeks before an election - without going nearly so far.

In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy went on to overturn the 1990 decision, so that corporations will now be allowed to spend money not just on electioneering communications but also on political ads that specifically endorse or oppose a candidate. That goes beyond the issue at the heart of the case. The court should have left it for another day and another case, one that might have produced a less polarized and politically suspect decision.

This decision is the latest example of the difficult process of reconciling the free speech protections of the First Amendment and the widely acknowledged need to reduce the influence of special interest money in elections.

Thursday's decision is likely to energize the debate over public financing of campaigns, which would be a healthy result. Congress also could consider regulations that would require unions and public companies to ensure that their political activities are supported by the rank-and-file or shareholders.

Chicago Tribune

We understand the deep concern about this ruling. Bank of America and Pfizer have a lot more money than you do, and that means they can speak more loudly than you can at campaign time. A corporation with the will and the deep pockets could overwhelm a candidate it doesn't like with negative ads.

The bottom line, though: We're not afraid of information. We trust voters to sift through political messages, consider the source, and vote their best judgment.

It's not as though corporations don't already influence politics. They bankroll campaigns through political action committees, those, though, do have spending limits.

We suspect this means that candidates will have less control of the message in their campaigns. We suspect this also means there will be pressure to raise the caps on how much candidates themselves can raise and spend. Those caps should be raised, or abolished.

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority decision "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation." We'd like to think democracy is stronger than that.

Wall Street Journal

Freedom has had its best week in many years. On Tuesday, Massachusetts put a Senate check on a reckless Congress, and Thursday the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision supporting free political speech by overturning some of Congress' more intrusive limits on election spending.

The court's opinion is especially effective in dismantling McCain-Feingold's arbitrary exemption for media corporations. Thus a corporation that owns a newspaper - Dow Jones or the New York Times - retains its First Amendment right to speak freely.

The court did uphold disclosure rules, so a sensible step now would be for Congress to remove all campaign finance limits subject only to immediate disclosure on the Internet. Citizens United is in any event a bracing declaration that Congress' long and misbegotten campaign finance crusade has reached a constitutional dead end.