Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito made headlines last night when he nodded and mouthed "It's not true" in response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Facing six of the nine Justices, who were sitting right up front, Obama criticized the recent landmark Supreme Court decision striking down limits on corporate political speech.
Alito was right. The president was wrong about the Supreme Court decision. Obama said, "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."
There are a lot of grounds to criticize the Supreme Court's campaign finance decision. It will allow corporations to spend shareholder money to influence the election of candidates many of those shareholders don't support. And it does open up a loophole that allows foreign corporations to influence federal elections through their U.S. subsidiaries.
But the Court did not overturn "a century of law." The provision upended by the Court was only seven years old. It was a novel innovation of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law adopted during the Bush Administration.
....This time, Justice Alito shook his head as if to rebut the president’s characterization of the Citizens United decision, and seemed to mouth the words “not true.” Indeed, Mr. Obama’s description of the holding of the case was imprecise. He said the court had “reversed a century of law.”
The law that Congress enacted in the populist days of the early 20th century prohibited direct corporate contributions to political campaigns. That law was not at issue in the Citizens United case, and is still on the books. Rather, the court struck down a more complicated statute that barred corporations and unions from spending money directly from their treasuries — as opposed to their political action committees — on television advertising to urge a vote for or against a federal candidate in the period immediately before the election. It is true, though, that the majority wrote so broadly about corporate free speech rights as to call into question other limitations as well — although not necessarily the existing ban on direct contributions.