The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday threw out legal restrictions on corporate and union spending to influence elections, calling them an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights.
"Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority in striking down federal laws barring these groups from spending money to try to persuade voters to support or oppose specific candidates.
Kennedy said there is no reason to believe that the constitutional right to free speech should be limited to "human beings" as opposed to associations of humans, which includes corporations.
"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," Kennedy wrote.
"This is unlawful," he continued. "The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves."
State Elections Director Amy Bjelland said Thursday's ruling also strikes down comparable prohibitions in state law against direct corporate and union spending to affect political campaigns.
Now, either group can craft and finance its own commercials, mailers and other efforts to elect - or defeat - any candidates they want. And they can spend as much as they want.
The only restrictions that remain, Bjelland said, are:
They can't give directly to those running for office but instead have to run their own campaigns, independent of the candidates.
The campaign materials must disclose who is footing the bill.
But the 5-4 ruling has an amplified effect in Arizona.
The decision comes just a day after a federal judge ruled that the state cannot constitutionally provide matching funds to publicly financed candidates when their privately funded foes spend more than their allocation. More to the point, that match applies to independent expenditures made on behalf of a privately funded candidate or against a candidate running with public dollars - the kind of campaigns that corporations and unions can now fund themselves.
"The ... decision is a real sea-change," said Todd Lang, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
"Companies like Exxon and Enron and what-have-you can spend as much money as they want endorsing candidates of their choice," he said. "We have this new flow of money coming into the system."
That, said Lang, allows well-heeled corporations to financially bury those candidates they oppose, with publicly financed contenders lacking cash to respond in kind.
Nick Dranias, attorney for the Goldwater Institute, which sued to overturn the fund-matching provision, agreed with Lang on at least one level: The two court decisions could be the death knell for public funding of campaigns in Arizona.
"The kind of person that would continue to rely on matching funds is someone who lost contact with reality," he said.
Federal law has restricted corporations from spending money to influence candidates' campaigns since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, a ban Congress subsequently extended to unions.
Those restrictions were tightened further seven years ago, in what became known as the McCain-Feingold, to bar corporations from spending money to explicitly urge voters to support or oppose a particular candidate. The law is named for its sponsors, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
Kennedy said all these laws go too far.
"The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether," Kennedy wrote.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in the dissent, said his colleagues were wrong.
"Going forward, corporations and unions will be free to spend as much general treasury money as they wish on ads that support or attack specific candidates," he wrote. "The court's ruling thus dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions - and the narrow interests they represent - in determining who will hold public office."
Bjelland said that, based on the language of the Supreme Court decision, Arizona's restrictions on corporate and union donations are now unenforceable even if they remain on the books.
Who benefits from all this in Arizona is up for debate.
Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said there could be an effect on this year's statewide and legislative races, with the winners and losers decided by who puts up more cash to get its favored candidates elected.
In Arizona, unions have never been much of a presence, with a "right to work" provision in the state constitution that bars any requirement that people join a union to work at any job. But Jim Haynes, president of the Behavior Research Center, which does political polling, said Thursday's ruling actually could give unions more influence over elections than corporations.
"There's a political risk in a company getting involved in a political campaign," Haynes said. "There's customer backlash and investor backlash, or at least the possibility of it," especially since the high court's ruling said the government still can force public disclosure of who is funding the independent campaigns.
Conversely, Haynes said, unions have "a commonality of interests" that would allow them to focus on electing candidates that support their concerns.
But Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said he fears what the ruling will mean.
"The upper hand is going to be to outside, out-of-state special interests coming to the state," he said, spending money to target Democrats who oppose what they want to do. He said many of the targets will be incumbent members of Congress.
Conversely, Matt Roberts, spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party, said his organization is "pretty pleased" by the ruling, saying it "can be good for the party."
But he stopped short of saying it will lead to the election of more Republicans.
"Corporations certainly have an interest in what kind of legislation people are involved with," he said. "They should be free to express that (in electing) the candidates they feel best represents their thoughts and concerns."
Chuck Coughlin, a veteran campaign organizer, said the net effect of the ruling on Arizona politics may depend on the race.
On one hand, he said that campaigns - and their funding - often do not matter. He said sometimes there is just a particular wave over the electorate, such as the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
But Coughlin said the new money could make a difference of three or four points in many races, which could be just enough to influence the outcome.