The Associated Press. Common Cause Public Campaign President Nick Nyhard, right, accompanied by Common Cause President Bob Edgar, left, and Campaign Legal Center Executive Director Gerald Hebert, center, gestures during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Thursday after the Supreme Court campaign finance ruling.
WASHINGTON -- Bitterly divided, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that big business can spend its millions to directly support or oppose candidates for president and Congress, a decision that sharply reverses a century-long trend to limit the political influence of corporations and labor unions. It remakes the political landscape just as crucial midterm election campaigns are getting under way.
The court, in a 5-4 split, overturned two earlier decisions and threw out parts of a 63-year-old law that said companies and unions can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to produce and run their own campaign ads. The decision threatens similar limits imposed by 24 states.
It leaves in place a prohibition on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions.
Critics of the stricter limits have argued that they amount to an unconstitutional restraint of free speech, and the court majority agreed.
''The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach,'' Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion, joined by his four more conservative colleagues.
Strongly disagreeing, Justice John Paul Stevens said in his dissent, ''The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.''
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Stevens' dissent, parts of which he read aloud in the courtroom.
The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.
President Barack Obama condemned the decision as a victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests.
The ruling will lead to a ''stampede of special interest money in our politics,'' Obama said in a statement. He pledged to work with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to come up with a ''forceful response'' to the high court's action.
But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader who filed the first lawsuit challenging the McCain-Feingold law, praised the court for ''restoring the First Amendment rights'' of corporations and unions. ''By previously denying this right, the government was picking winners and losers,'' McConnell said.
Advocates of strong campaign finance regulations have predicted that a court ruling against the limits would lead to a flood of corporate and union money in federal campaigns as early as this year's congressional elections.
''It's the Super Bowl of bad decisions,'' said Common Cause president Bob Edgar, a former congressman from Pennsylvania.