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'Hillary' case: the legal stakes

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Campaign-finance restrictions are generally justified as a means to combat quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of such corruption. The concern is that corporations might buy influence and receive special favors if large amounts of corporate money are instrumental in electing or defeating a particular candidate.

In 1990, the high court embraced a different justification for limiting corporate involvement in elections. Instead of focusing on the corrupting influence of corporate dollars on candidates, the court said such limits could be justified under the Constitution to prevent a corrupting influence on the election process itself.

In a case called Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the majority justices declared that the government had a compelling interest in preventing corporations from using their massive financial resources to drown out other voices in an election. The Constitution, the court said, permits the government to enforce a level playing field during campaign seasons to prevent wealthy corporate interests from distorting the political landscape.

That 1990 decision and its antidistortion rationale were reaffirmed in 2003, when the high court upheld similar corporate-spending restrictions in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

Now, the court is reexamining those decisions.

Three justices – Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas – have already announced their willingness to overturn them. The big question is whether Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito are willing to join the three to form a five-vote majority.

On Wednesday, all the justices will hear arguments from both sides.

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