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Retired Justice Stevens: Obama right to criticize court ruling on campaign spending

By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ruffled some feathers two years ago when he lambasted the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision during a State of the Union speech. It was unusual for a president to criticize the justices as they sat before him.

Now, retired Justice John Paul Stevens has taken the equally unusual step of saying the president was right in challenging the court’s opinion.

Obama said the 5-4 ruling freeing corporations to spend unlimited sums on elections “reversed a century of law,” adding it would “open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”

“In that succinct comment, the former professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago made three important and accurate observations about the Supreme Court majority’s opinion,” Stevens said in a speech Wednesday evening. “First, it did reverse a century of law; second, it did authorize unlimited election-related expenditures by America’s most powerful interests; and, third, the logic of the opinion extends to money spent by foreign entities.”

Stevens dissented from the 2010 decision, and he said again Wednesday that he could not understand why, if “corporations have no right to vote,” they should have the right to sway elections.

The justice also said he did not see why those with the most money should be permitted to dominate the airwaves during election campaigns. “During the televised debates among the Republican candidates for the presidency, the moderators made an effort to allow each speaker an equal opportunity to express his or her views,” he said, speaking in Little Rock, Ark. If there were six candidates, he said, they were given roughly the same amount of time to speak.

“Both the candidates and the audience would surely have thought the value of the debate to have suffered if the moderator had allocated the time on the basis of the speakers’ wealth, or it they had held an auction allowing the most time to the highest bidder,” Stevens said.

The 92-year old retired justice has reason to feel kindly toward Obama this week. He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Tuesday, and Obama described his “signature style: modest, insightful, well-prepared and razor-sharp … always favoring a pragmatic solution over an ideological one.”

Stevens retired in 2010, and Obama chose Justice Elena Kagan to replace him.

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