Brennan Center Statement on Ruling in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life

June 25, 2007

For Immediate Release
Monday, June 25, 2007

Jonathan Rosen or Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs (646) 452-5637

Brennan Center Statement on Ruling in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life


Supreme Court Calls into Question Campaign Finance Law Upheld in 2003

New York - The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law issued the following statement in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life.  The decision permits corporations and unions that run ads qualifying as “electioneering communications” to claim exemptions from the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 ("BCRA"), unless their ads are “susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” In applying that standard, the purpose of the ads is irrelevant, and courts “generally” may not inquire into facts that place the ads in context.

“As we spend billions to spread democracy around the world, this decision deals a huge setback to democracy here at home.  Any adman with a computer mouse and a modicum of creativity will be able to steer millions of dollars of special interest money into campaigns.  It will be the Wild West all over again,” said Michael Waldman, Executive Director of the Brennan Center. 

“In other words, under this ruling, an ad run two days before an election, criticizing a candidate, in the district, can be funded with unlimited corporate or union funds, as long as it mentions an issue,” said Waldman.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today re-opens the floodgates of unlimited special interest money in federal elections,” said Deborah Goldberg, Director of the Democracy Program. “The Court is willfully ignoring how modern campaigns work.  The exception created with this decision swallows the rule the Court found constitutional less than four years ago.”

“In 2000, research conducted by the Brennan Center and the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that approximately $629 million was spent on television advertising in federal elections- then an all-time record.  Almost none of these ads used ‘magic words’ like ‘vote for’, ‘elect’, or ‘vote against’.  Only 2% of campaign ads aired by political parties and independent groups used magic words.  In 2003, the Supreme Court recognized that the magic words test for ads subject to campaign finance regulation was ‘functionally meaningless.’ The Court’s focus today on the text of advertising, abstracted from its purpose and relevant factual context, effectively returns us to that functionally meaningless standard,” Goldberg stated.

Ms. Goldberg, a national expert on campaign finance reform, is available to discuss the impact of today’s decision on political campaigns and efforts to reduce the role of money in politics.  The Center took the lead in defending the electioneering communications provisions in the Supreme Court.


In 1998 and 2000 the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the University of Wisconsin released two reports that offered a systematic description and analysis of the political advertising in the 1998 and 2000 elections.  The major topic explored in each “Buying Time” study was the extent to which parties and groups used the magic words test to shield their electioneering activity and avoid federal campaign finance law. In order to achieve this objective, the Brennan Center created three separate, powerful databases. The first two databases consisted of televised political ads in 1998 and 2000. The third database documented how the parties spent soft money in the 2000 election cycle. These data sets were used to test assumptions about the nature of political advertising by candidates, parties, and special interest groups.

For more information, see Buying Time 2000.