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First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti


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435 U.S. 765 (1978), argued 9 Nov. 1977, decided 26 Apr. 1978 by vote of 5 to 4; Powell for the Court, Burger concurring, White, Brennan, Marshall, and Rehnquist in dissent. Reversing the highest court of Massachusetts, a bare majority of the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the portion of a state statute that banned corporations from spending to influence the outcome of a ballot referendum concerning a graduated income tax. Such corporate expenditure is protected by the First Amendment no less than anyone else's expenditure in the exercise of the right to free speech. The Court thus added another constitutional barrier to the major obstacles already erected by Buckley v. Valeo (1976) against legislative efforts to restrict campaign expenditures.

Banks and other corporations, like individuals, are free to spend their funds to advocate or oppose public policies submitted for voter consideration. They could still, however, be constitutionally prohibited, as they are by federal and many state laws, from contributing money to candidates for elective office. And, it turned out, corporations could also be prohibited from spending on behalf of a candidate independently of a candidate's campaign (Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 1990).

In Bellotti, the Court appears to follow its distinction in Buckley between campaign expenditures and campaign contributions to candidates. Expenditures are entitled to a constitutional protection not afforded to contributions that might be thought, when large, to corrupt elected officials. Bellotti is significant in extending the protection of expenditures to outlays of corporate funds. Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist, in vigorous dissenting opinions, separately dispute this result, contending that states should have the power to determine the potential harm of corporate campaign expenditures.

Leon D. Epstein

Subjects: Law.


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