Supreme Court lifts ban that has been in effect for 63 years.

A sharply divided Supreme Court has ruled that labour unions and corporations can spend unlimited amounts to influence federal elections, throwing out a ban that had been in effect for 63 years and adding an explosive new element to this year's midterm elections.

Thursday's 5-to-4 ruling dismayed lawmakers and public interest groups that fought for decades to limit the influence of wealthy special interests in politics. But it cheered those who have railed against what they see as government control of free speech in election campaigns.

The decision could provoke changes in Massachusetts law, which bans corporate spending to influence an election. Campaign finance specialists said that while the high court opinion specifically applies to federal races, the First Amendment issue cited in the ruling could end up preempting state laws or enabling new lawsuits to challenge them.

The court said corporate and labour union spending amounted to free speech, and should be constitutionally protected. "The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the majority opinion.

The justices left in place the dollar limits for contributions to candidates by individuals and political action committees. In doing so, the justices adhered to previous rulings that there is a more significant "quid pro quo" attached to such direct contribution to a candidate, said David Primo, a First Amendment specialist and University of Rochester political science professor.

Paid issue ads

The high court's ruling also lifts the ban on corporate and union-paid "issue ads" in the waning days of a campaign, upending a key element of a 2002 reform law.

Martin Meehan, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell and a former U.S. representative who co-authored the 2002 act, said he was devastated by the ruling.

"I think it's the worst campaign finance reform case in Supreme Court history,'' Mr. Meehan said in an interview. "The court has abandoned longstanding judicial principles and precedents, and I believe this decision will result in influence-buying and corruption. The decision will empower financial companies, banks, and energy companies to spend millions of dollars to elect federal candidates."

Obama blasts ruling

President Barack Obama blasted the ruling, saying the high court "has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. 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,'' Mr. Obama said. - © 2010 The New York Times News Service

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