High Court Nixes Section of McCain-Feingold Law

     (CN) - The Supreme Court on Thursday killed a central part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and ruled that corporations may spend as much as they wish to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress. The 5-4 vote left intact limits on corporate gifts to individual candidates.
     Writing in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation."
     But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, called the McCain-Feinberg's restrictions "censorship ... vast in its reach."
     "By suppressing the speech of manifold corporations, both for-profit and nonprofit, the Government prevents their voices and viewpoints from reaching the public and advising voters on which persons or entities are hostile to their interests," Kennedy wrote.
     Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, filed suit after it was blocked from airing its scathing political film, "Hillary: The Movie," on pay-per-view television before the 2008 primary elections.
     The group said the decision by the Federal Election Commission violated its free-speech rights. The movie features various pundits discussing Clinton's bid for the presidency.
     Last year, a federal court in Washington, D.C., deemed the film corporate electioneering, saying it was "susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her."
     The high court convened early to hear the closely watched First Amendment case, which had the potential to upend campaign-finance laws in 26 states.
     The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold law for its sponsors, bars companies from airing "any broadcast, cable or satellite communications" that refers to a candidate for federal office within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election.
     Citizens United urged the justices to decide the case on narrower grounds, arguing that "Hillary: The Movie" doesn't qualify as "electioneering communication" under campaign-finance law and that video-on-demand doesn't constitute a commercial broadcast.
     But the Supreme Court said its ruling had to be broad, because a narrow decision would chill political speech.
     "Any other course of decision would prolong the substantial nationwide chilling effect caused by [the law's] prohibitions on corporate expenditures," Kennedy wrote.
     Kennedy said a broad approach required the court to tackle the validity of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a 1990 Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan campaign-finance law.
     The majority said the court should return to pre-Austin precedents that rejected restrictions on corporate political speech.
     "The purpose and effect of [McCain-Feingold] is to prevent corporations, including small and nonprofit corporations, from presenting both facts and opinions to the public," Kennedy wrote.
     "When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves."
     Justice Stevens, in his dissent, said nothing was being "banned," and the argument was simply over "whether Citizens United had a right to use the funds in its general treasury to pay for broadcasts during the 30-day period."
     He said corporations and individual speakers need not be treated equally, and the majority's refusal to draw a distinction "blazes through our precedents."
     He strongly disagreed with the court's decision to overrule Austin and parts of McConnell v. FEC, which relied on Austin.
     "Our colleagues' suggestion that 'we are asked to reconsider Austin and, in effect, McConnell' would be more accurate if rephrased to state that 'we have asked ourselves' to reconsider those cases," Stevens wrote. He feared such a path would "do damage to this institution."
     Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Stevens in dissent.

Supreme Court Rules for Albanian Who Overslept

     (CN) - An Albanian immigrant who slept through his alarm and missed his final asylum hearing won another shot at fighting his deportation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that courts can review an immigration board's refusal to reopen his case.
     The justices reversed a 7th Circuit decision that the order denying Agron Kucana's motion to reopen his case was non-reviewable.
     Kucana said he arrived at his asylum hearing shortly after the immigration judge ordered his removal. He asked the court to reopen his case, explaining that he accidentally slept in, but was denied.
     In 2006, he again moved to reopen his case, saying conditions were worse in Albania. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) denied his motion, and the 7th Circuit said it lacked jurisdiction to review the board's decision.
     In making that determination, the 7th Circuit relied on a provision of immigration law barring review of administrative decisions placed in the attorney general's "discretion." But it wasn't clear whether the statute referred to only those decisions made discretionary by law, or if it extended to decisions made discretionary by the attorney general himself, through regulations.
     Kucana argued that judicial review is broadly applicable to the BIA's decisions.
     Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the law's language refers "to statutory, but not to regulatory, specifications."
     And because a regulation -- not a law -- gave the BIA authority to deny Kucana's motion, that decision is subject to judicial review, the justices ruled.
     "Had Congress elected to insulate denials of motions to reopen from judicial review, it could have so specified," Ginsburg wrote.
     To rule otherwise would give the executive "the free hand to shelter its own decisions from abuse-of-discretion appellate court review simply by issuing a regulation declaring those decisions 'discretionary,'" she wrote.
     The high court reversed and remanded.

Justices OK Intervention in Water Rights Case

     (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed two non-state entities to intervene in a dispute between North Carolina and South Carolina over the water rights to the Catawba River, but ruled that Charlotte, N.C., lacks a "compelling interest" to join the action.
     The justices rejected the intervention rule that had been created by a special master, who allowed three non-state entities to join the lawsuit based on their "compelling circumstances."
     The high court found this rule too broad.
     "[A] compelling reason for allowing citizens to participate in the original action is not necessarily a compelling reason for allowing citizens to intervene in all original actions," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
     But the court held that two of the intervening parties - the Catawba River Water Supply Project and Duke Energy Carolinas - met the standards for intervention, even though Charlotte did not.
     "Charlotte has not carried its burden of showing a sufficient interest for intervention in this action," Alito concluded.
     "Its interest is solely as a user of North Carolina's share of the Catawba River's water."
     Chief Justice John Roberts also rejected the special master's rule, but said the other entities should have been likewise barred from intervening.
     "The result is literally unprecedented," Roberts wrote. "Even though equitable apportionment actions are a significant part of our original docket, this court has never before granted intervention in such a case to an entity other than a State, the United States, or an Indian tribe. Never."
     That's because apportionment "is a sovereign dispute," he wrote, "and the key to intervention in such an action is just that - sovereignty."
     Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined Roberts' concurrence and partial dissent.