WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a case that challenges one of the primary provisions in Sen. Russ Feingold's signature campaign finance legislation.
The court's decision, which could come as early as this week, could have monumental consequences for the influence of corporate and union money on elections.
The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, centers on one of two primary provisions in the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold bill after authors Feingold and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The law banned ''soft'' money, or large unregulated donations, and limited electioneering communications such as political advertising.
Citizens United, an independent group, has challenged an FEC ruling that prohibited the group from airing a documentary on 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton titled "Hillary: The Movie." The FEC said the group, which received corporate donations, could not run the documentary because it advocated the defeat of a political candidate within 60 days of a general election. The group had intended to air the documentary via a video-on-demand service.
Citizens United contends the FEC ruling violated the group's freedom of speech and that McCain-Feingold's electioneering communications provision regarding disclosure and funding is unconstitutional.
While the Supreme Court could simply invalidate the electioneering communications provision, experts say it seems to be moving toward a broader decision regarding the constitutionality of barring corporations and unions from paying for political ads from their general treasuries.
If the court holds that such a ban is unconstitutional, it would overturn previous rulings upholding the restrictions that span decades.
Such a ruling, Feingold said in a statement Monday, would unleash a flood of corporate money into elections and take the U.S. "not just back to a pre-McCain-Feingold era, but back to the era of the robber barons in the 19th century."
In an October statement to his colleagues on the Senate Floor, Feingold said the voice of individual citizens would be drowned out if the ban on corporate and union spending on political ads is lifted.
"Our elections would become like NASCAR races - underwritten by companies," Feingold said. "Only in this case, the corporate underwriters wouldn't just be seeking publicity, they would be seeking laws and policies that the candidates have the power to provide."
Tara Malloy, associate counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said removing spending restrictions on political ads would give corporations huge advantages in elections.
"Corporations have almost unlimited resources," Malloy said. "Once you allow these vast amounts of treasury funds into elections, the fear is that there would be a quid pro quo."