Court OKs Corp. Political Donations, Arizona Immigration Checks

The Supreme Court on Monday reaffirmed its 2-year-old decision allowing corporations to spend freely to influence elections. The justices struck down a Montana law limiting corporate campaign spending.

U.S. Supreme Court
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
U.S. Supreme Court

The justices also struck down key provisions of Arizona's crackdown on immigrants but allowed one much-debated part of the law — police checks for immigration status.

In a morning of high drama, the court didn't rule on the biggest issue of its agenda, the constitutionality of the landmark Affordable Health Care Law. The ruling on what opponents have dubbed Obamacare is now expected Thursday, the final day of the court's session.

The court also still has to decide cases on lying about military medals and real estate kickbacks.

By a 5-4 vote, the court's conservative justices said the decision in the Citizens Unitedcase in 2010 applies to state campaign finance laws and guarantees corporate and labor union interests the right to spend freely to advocate for or against candidates for state and local offices.

The majority turned away pleas from the court's liberal justices to give a full hearing to the case because massive campaign spending since the January 2010 ruling has called into question some of its underpinnings.

The same five justices said in 2010 that corporations have a constitutional right to be heard in election campaigns. The decision paved the way forunlimited spending by corporations and labor unions in elections for Congress and the president, as long as the dollars are independent of the campaigns they are intended to help. The decision, grounded in the freedom of speech, appeared to apply equally to state contests.

But Montana aggressively defended its 1912 law against a challenge from corporations seeking to be free of spending limits, and the state Supreme Court sided with the state. The state court said a history of corruption showed the need for the limits, even as Justice Anthony Kennedy declared in his Citizens United opinion that independent expenditures by corporations "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

In the Arizona immigration case, the decision upheld the "show me your papers" provision for the moment. But it took the teeth out of it by prohibiting police officers from arresting people on minor immigration charges.

President Barack Obama said he's pleased the court struck down key parts of the law, but he voiced concern about what the high court left intact.

"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like." He said police in Arizona should not enforce the provision in a way that undermines civil rights.

Republican rival Mitt Romney said he would have preferred that the court "give more latitude to the states" in immigration enforcement.

Kennedy wrote the opinion that was unanimous on allowing the status check to go forward. The court was divided on striking down the other portions. Kennedy said the law could — and suggested it should — be read to avoid concerns that immigration status checks could lead to prolonged detention.

The court struck down these three major provisions: requiring all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers, making it a state criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to seek work or hold a job and allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without warrants.

The Obama administration sued to block the Arizona law soon after its enactment two years ago. Federal courts had refused to let the four key provisions take effect.

Five states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah — have adopted variations on Arizona's law. Parts of those laws also are on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

In other action, the court:

_ Declined to review how the trustee for Bernard Madoff's customers calculates victims' losses, a decision that could help speed a payout of billions of dollars. Without comment, the court let stand an August 2011 decision by a federal appeals court that approved of the calculation method employed by Irving Picard, the trustee liquidating the imprisoned Ponzi schemer's firm.

_ Rejected an appeal by two U.S. investment funds that sought to seize $105 million of Argentina's central bank deposits in New York to satisfy their claims from the country's huge debt default a decade ago. The funds involved are EM Ltd, which is controlled by investor Kenneth Dart, and NML Capital Ltd, an affiliate of the investment firm Elliott Management Corp.

_ Said it's unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for murder. The 5-4 decision was in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing.

In the Montana case, 22 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Sen. John McCain and other congressional champions of stricter regulations on campaign money, joined with Montana.

Two liberal justices who were in dissent in Citizens United — Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — already had challenged Kennedy's view that the independent campaign spending could not be corrupting by virtue of the absence of links to a campaign.

When the court blocked the Montana ruling in February, Ginsburg issued a brief statement for herself and Breyer saying that campaign spending since the decision makes "it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations `do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.'"

Ginsburg appeared to be referring to the rise of unregulatedsuper PACs that have injected millions of dollars into the presidential and other campaigns. She said the case "will give the court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates' allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway."

The corporations that sued over the law said it could not remain on the books after the Citizens United decision.

Montana urged the high court to reject the appeal, or hold arguments and not issue what the court calls a summary reversal. The prevailing side in the lower court almost always strives to avoid high court review. But Montana and its supporters hoped a thorough debate over the Citizens United decision would lead to its reconsideration or at least limits on its reach.

Reuters contributed to this story.