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Context of 'January 30, 1976: Supreme Court Modifies 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act Provisions, Finds Campaign Donations Are Protected ‘Free Speech’'

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The massive Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) is signed into law by President Nixon. (The law is commonly thought of in the context of 1971, when Congress passed it, but Nixon did not sign it into law for several months.) The law is sparked by a rising tide of anger among the public, frustrated by the Vietnam War and the variety of movements agitating for change. The campaign watchdog organization Common Cause sued both the Democratic and Republican National Committees for violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA—see 1925), and though it lost the suit, it exposed the flaws and limitations of the law to the public. Common Cause then led a push to improve campaign finance legislation, aided by the many newly elected and reform-minded members of Congress. FECA repeals the toothless FCPA and creates a comprehensive framework for the regulation of federal campaign financing, from primaries and runoffs to conventions and general elections. The law requires full and timely disclosure of donations and expenditures, and provides broad definitions of both. It sets limits on media advertising as well as on contributions from candidates and their family members. The law permits unions and corporations to solicit voluntary contributions from members, employees, and stockholders, and allows union and corporate treasury money to be used for operating expenses for political action committees (PACs) or for voter drives and the like. It bans patronage or the promise of patronage, and bans contracts between a candidate and any federal department or agency. It establishes strict caps on the amounts individuals can contribute to their own campaigns—$50,000 for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, $35,000 for Senate candidates, and $25,000 for House candidates. It establishes a cap on television advertising at 10 cents per voter in the last election, or $50,000, whichever is higher. [Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; Federal Election Commission, 4/2008 pdf file] The difference before and after FECA is evident. Congressional campaign spending reportage from 1968 claimed only $8.5 million, while in 1972, Congressional campaign spending reports will soar to $88.9 million. [Federal Elections Commission, 1998]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Federal Corrupt Practices Act, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Common Cause

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (see August 8, 1974), amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972) provide the option for full public financing for presidential general elections, matching funds for presidential primaries, and public expenditures for presidential nominating conventions. The amendments also set spending limits on presidential primaries and general elections as well as for House and Senate primaries. The amendments give some enforcement provisions to previously enacted spending limits on House and Senate general elections. They set strict spending guidelines: for presidential campaigns, each candidate is limited to $10 million for primaries, $20 million for general elections, and $2 million for nominating conventions; Senatorial candidates are limited to $100,000 or eight cents per eligible voter, whichever is higher, for primaries, and higher limits of $150,000 or 12 cents per voter for general elections; House candidates are limited to $70,000 each for primaries and general elections. Loans are treated as contributions. The amendments create an individual contribution limit of $1,000 to a candidate per election and a PAC (political action committee) contribution limit of $5,000 to a candidate per election (this provision will trigger what the Center for Responsive Politics will call a “PAC boom” in the late 1970s). The total aggregate contributions from an individual are set at $25,000 per year. Candidates face further restrictions on how much personal wealth they can contribute to their own campaign. The 1940 ban on contributions from government employees and contract workers (see 1940) is repealed, as are the 1971 limitations on media spending. Perhaps most importantly, the amendments create the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to oversee and administer campaign law. (Before, enforcement and oversight responsibilities were spread among the Clerk of the House, the Secretary of the Senate, and the Comptroller General of the United States General Accounting Office (GAO), with the Justice Department responsible for prosecuting violators (see 1967).) The FEC is led by a board of six commissioners, with Congress appointing four of those commissioners and the president appointing two more. The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House are designated nonvoting, exofficio commissioners. [Federal Elections Commission, 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file] Part of the impetus behind the law is the public outrage over the revelations of how disgraced ex-President Nixon’s re-election campaign was funded, with millions of dollars in secret, illegal corporate contributions being funneled into the Nixon campaign. [Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Center for Responsive Politics, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Federal Election Commission, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, filed by Senator James L. Buckley (R-NY) and former Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-WI) against the Secretary of the Senate, Francis R. Valeo, challenges the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) on free-speech grounds. The suit also named the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as a defendant. A federal appeals court validated almost all of FECA, and the plaintiffs sent the case to the Supreme Court. The Court upholds the contribution limits set by FECA because those limits help to safeguard the integrity of elections. However, the court overrules the limits set on campaign expenditures, ruling: “It is clear that a primary effect of these expenditure limitations is to restrict the quantity of campaign speech by individuals, groups, and candidates. The restrictions… limit political expression at the core of our electoral process and of First Amendment freedoms.” One of the most important aspects of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that financial contributions to political campaigns can be considered expressions of free speech, thereby allowing individuals to essentially make unrestricted donations. The Court implies that expenditure limits on publicly funded candidates are allowable under the Constitution, because presidential candidates may disregard the limits by rejecting public financing (the Court will affirm this stance in a challenge brought by the Republican National Committee in 1980).
Provisions of 'Buckley' - The Court finds the following provisions constitutional:
bullet Limitations on contributions to candidates for federal office;
bullet Disclosure and record-keeping provisions; and
bullet The public financing of presidential elections.
However, the Court finds these provisions unconstitutional:
bullet Limitations on expenditures by candidates and their committees, except for presidential candidates who accept public funding;
bullet The $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures;
bullet The limitations on expenditures by candidates from their personal funds; and
bullet The method of appointing members of the FEC, holding that as the method stands, it violates the principle of separation of powers.
In May 1976, following the Court’s ruling, the FEC will reconstitute its board with six presidential appointees after Senate confirmation. [Federal Elections Commission, 3/1997; Federal Elections Commission, 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; Casebriefs, 2012]
No Clear Authors - The opinion is labeled per curiam, a term usually reserved for brief and minor Court decisions when authorship of an opinion is less relevant. It is unclear exactly which Justices write the opinion. Most Court observers believe Justice William Brennan writes the bulk of the opinion, but Brennan’s biographers will later note that sections of the opinion are authored by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Potter Stewart, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. The opinion is an amalgamation of multiple authors, reflecting the several compromises made in the resolution of the decision. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Criticism of 'Buckley' - Critics claim that the ruling enshrines the principle of “money equals speech.” The ruling also says that television and radio advertisements that do not expressly attack an individual candidate can be paid for with “unregulated” funds. This leads organizations to begin airing “attack ads” that masquerade as “issue ads,” ostensibly promoting or opposing a particular social or political issue and avoiding such words as “elect” or “defeat.” [National Public Radio, 2012] In 1999, law professor Burt Neuborne will write: “Buckley is like a rotten tree. Give it a good, hard push and, like a rotten tree, Buckley will keel over. The only question is in which direction.” Neuborne will write that his preference goes towards reasonable federal regulations of spending and contributions, but “any change would be welcome” in lieu of this decision, and even a completely deregulated system would be preferable to Buckley’s legal and intellectual incoherence. [New York Times, 5/3/2010] In 2011, law professor Richard Hasen will note that while the Buckley decision codifies the idea that contributions are a form of free speech, it also sets strict limitations on those contributions. Calling the decision “Solomonic,” Hasen will write that the Court “split the baby, upholding the contribution limits but striking down the independent spending limit as a violation of the First Amendment protections of free speech and association.” Hasen will reflect: “Buckley set the main parameters for judging the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions for a generation. Contribution limits imposed only a marginal restriction on speech, because the most important thing about a contribution is the symbolic act of contributing, not the amount. Further, contribution limits could advance the government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. The Court upheld Congress’ new contribution limits. It was a different story with spending limits, which the Court said were a direct restriction on speech going to the core of the First Amendment. Finding no evidence in the record then that independent spending could corrupt candidates, the Court applied a tough ‘strict scrutiny’ standard of review and struck down the limits.” [Slate, 10/25/2011] In 2012, reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin will call it “one of the Supreme Court’s most complicated, contradictory, incomprehensible (and longest) opinions.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Federal Election Commission, James Buckley, Jeffrey Toobin, US Supreme Court, Eugene McCarthy, Lewis Powell, Potter Stewart, Burt Neuborne, William Rehnquist, Warren Burger, Richard L. Hasen, William Brennan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Amendments to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) passed by Congress after the controversial Buckley ruling by the Supreme Court (see January 30, 1976) bring FECA into conformity with the Court’s decision. The amendments repeal expenditure limits except for presidential candidates who accept public funding, and revise the provisions governing the appointment of commissioners to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The amendments also limit the scope of PAC fundraising by corporations and labor unions. The amendments limit individual contributions to national political parties to $20,000 per year, and individual contributions to a PAC to $5,000 per year. [Federal Elections Commission, 1998; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file] However, the Constitution restricts what Congress can, or is willing, to do, and the amendments are relatively insignificant. [Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Commission, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court, in the case of First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, rules 5-4 that corporations have the First Amendment right to make contributions in order to influence political processes. Writing for the majority, Justice Lewis Powell finds that under the recent Buckley ruling (see January 30, 1976), corporate political donations are protected speech. Powell’s opinion finds that a Massachusetts criminal statute prohibiting corporations from spending money for the purpose of “influencing or affecting” voters’ opinions is not legitimate. The split among the justices is unusual, with Powell, a conservative, being joined by two more conservatives, Chief Justice Warren Burger and Potter Stewart, and liberals Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens. The four dissenters are liberals William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, and conservatives Byron White and William Rehnquist. [FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF BOSTON v. BELLOTTI, 2012; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] Rehnquist’s standalone dissent advocates for far stricter controls on corporate spending in elections than most of the other justices’ dissents, with Rehnquist writing that such spending could “pose special dangers in the political sphere.” [Reclaim Democracy, 4/26/1978; FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF BOSTON v. BELLOTTI, 2012]

Entity Tags: Lewis Powell, Byron White, John Paul Stevens, William Rehnquist, Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, US Supreme Court, Potter Stewart, Thurgood Marshall

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court, in the case of Federal Election Commission v. NCPAC, rules that political action committees (PACs) can spend more than the $1,000 mandated by federal law (see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976). The Democratic Party and the FEC argued that large expenditures by the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) in 1975 violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which caps spending by independent political action committees in support of a publicly funded presidential candidate at $1,000. The Court rules 7-2 in favor of NCPAC, finding that the relevant section of FECA encroaches on the organization’s right to free speech (see January 30, 1976). Justice William Rehnquist writes the majority opinion, joined by fellow conservatives Chief Justice Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Lewis Powell, and liberals Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and William Brennan. Justices Byron White and Thurgood Marshall dissent from the majority. [Oyez (.org), 2012; Moneyocracy, 2/2012]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Commission, William Brennan, William Rehnquist, Byron White, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, US Supreme Court, Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Thurgood Marshall, National Conservative Political Action Committee, Democratic Party, Lewis Powell

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court rules in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life that an anti-abortion organization can print flyers promoting “pro-life” candidates in the weeks before an election, and that the portion of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) that bars distribution of such materials to the general public restricts free speech. In September 1978, the Massachusetts Citizens For Life (MCFL) spent almost $10,000 printing flyers captioned “Everything You Need to Vote Pro-Life,” which included information about specific federal and state candidates’ positions on abortion rights, along with exhortations to “vote pro-life” and “No pro-life candidate can win in November without your vote in September.” The Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that MCFL’s expenditures violated FECA’s ban on corporate spending in connection with federal elections. A Massachusetts district court ruled against the FEC, finding that the flyer distribution “was uninvited by any candidate and uncoordinated with any campaign” and the flyers fell under the “newspaper exemption” of the law. Moreover, the court found, FECA’s restrictions infringed on MCFL’s freedom of speech (see January 30, 1976 and April 26, 1978). An appeals court reversed much of the district court’s decision, but agreed that the named provision of FECA violated MCFL’s free speech rights. The FEC appealed to the Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the Court affirms that FECA’s prohibition on corporate expenditures is unconstitutional as applied to independent expenditures made by a narrowly defined type of nonprofit corporation such as MCFL. The Court writes that few organizations will be impacted by its decision. The majority opinion is written by Justice William Brennan, a Court liberal, and joined by liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservatives Lewis Powell, Antonin Scalia, and (in part) by Sandra Day O’Connor. Court conservatives William Rehnquist and Byron White, joined by liberals Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, dissent with the majority, saying that the majority ruling gives “a vague and barely adumbrated exception [to the law] certain to result in confusion and costly litigation.” [Federal Election Commission, 2011; Moneyocracy, 2/2012]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Commission, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, US Supreme Court, William Brennan, Sandra Day O’Connor, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Thurgood Marshall, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Byron White, Lewis Powell

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court, ruling in the Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission case, finds that some political advertisements can be exempted from the “electioneering communications” provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act (see March 27, 2002). The case stems from attempts by an anti-abortion advocacy group, Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL), to run ads asking viewers to contact their senators and urge them to oppose filibusters of judicial nominees. WRTL tried to run its ads during the 30 and 60-day “blackout” periods before the upcoming 2004 elections, but because it accepted corporate contributions and was itself incorporated, the McCain-Feingold restrictions prevented the ads from running. WRTL argued that the ads were not targeting candidates, but were strictly issue-related (see Mid-2004 and After). The case was initially dismissed, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the lower courts. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) argued that the ads were intended to influence US Senate elections in Wisconsin, and thusly should be regulated by McCain-Feingold. A district court disagreed, ruling against the FEC and finding that the ads were “protected speech” (see January 30, 1976), though it limited its findings solely to the WRTL ads and specified that its ruling was not to apply to other cases. The FEC appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision finds that the district court’s ruling is valid. Chief Justice John Roberts writes the majority opinion, which establishes broad exemptions for advertisements that could be “reasonably” interpreted as being about legislative issues and not directed on behalf of, or against, a particular candidate. As long as “issue ads” do not contain the “functional equivalent” of express advocacy for or against a candidate, the Roberts opinion holds, and the advertisements are legal. The ads involve “core political speech” that is protected by the First Amendment, Roberts finds: “We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship.” Justice David Souter writes the dissenting opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas write a concurring opinion that joins them with Roberts and the other two conservative justices, but in their concurrence, they say they would overturn the McCain-Feingold law in its entirety. [Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 6/26/2007; FindLaw, 2011; National Public Radio, 2012; Oyez (.org), 7/1/2012] Roberts is careful in the language of his majority opinion, writing that “the First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.” He does not directly advocate for the overturning of the McCain-Feingold law, but referring to the 2003 McConnell decision that upheld the law (see December 10, 2003), he writes, “We have no occasion to revisit that determination today.” In 2012, reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write of Roberts’s use of the word “today,” “To those who know the language of the Court, the Chief Justice was all but announcing that five justices would soon declare the McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012] Toobin is referring to the 2010 Citizens United decision that will overturn most of the law (see January 21, 2010).

Entity Tags: John G. Roberts, Jr, Clarence Thomas, David Souter, Antonin Scalia, Federal Election Commission, Wisconsin Right to Life, US Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court finds in the case of Davis v. Federal Election Commission that part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act (see March 27, 2002) is unconstitutional. Jack Davis (D-NY), a millionaire who has run repeatedly and unsuccessfully as a candidate of both parties to represent New York’s 26th District in the US House of Representatives, has complained in a lawsuit that the so-called “millionaire’s amendment” is unconstitutional. Davis wants to be able to pour his money into the race without his opponents being able to spend more money to counter his donations, as the law enables them to do. The lower courts found against Davis, and under McCain-Feingold the case was expedited directly to the Supreme Court. The Court finds 5-4 in favor of Davis, ruling that the contribution limits unduly restrict Davis’s freedom of speech. Justice Samuel Alito writes the majority opinion, joined by his fellow Court conservatives. Justice John Paul Stevens writes the dissent for the four Court liberals, though Stevens and the others do agree with some aspects of Alito’s majority opinion. Alito’s decision flows directly from an earlier Court precedent (see January 30, 1976). [Oyez (.org), 2011; Moneyocracy, 2/2012]

Entity Tags: John (“Jack”) Davis, Federal Election Commission, Samuel Alito, US Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The second round of arguments in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, and June 29, 2009) is heard by the US Supreme Court. The first round of arguments, which unexpectedly focused on an unplanned examination of government censorship, ended in a 5-4 split, with the majority of conservative justices readying a decision to essentially gut the entire body of federal campaign finance law in the name of the First Amendment (see March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), but an angry dissent by Justice David Souter that accused Chief Justice John Roberts of failing to follow the procedures of the Court in rendering the opinion prompted Roberts to temporarily withdraw the opinion and offer a rare second argument (see May 14, 2012). Newly appointed Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues her first case before the Court. Citizens United, the plaintiff, is represented by former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, a veteran of Court arguments, quickly discerns from the new round of “Questions Presented” that the Court is prepared to not only find in the plaintiff’s favor, but to use the case to render a broad verdict against campaign finance law as a whole. Olson argues cautiously, not wanting to extend the case farther than the Court may desire. The four minority liberal justices, knowing the case is lost, try their best in their questioning to raise awareness in the public once news reports of the arguments are made public. One of those justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, asks: “Mr. Olson, are you taking the position that there is no difference” between the First Amendment rights of a corporation and those of an individual? “A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights. So is there any distinction that Congress could draw between corporations and natural human beings for purposes of campaign finance?” Olson replies, “What the Court has said in the First Amendment context… over and over again is that corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment” (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). Ginsburg follows up by asking, “Would that include today’s mega-corporations, where many of the investors may be foreign individuals or entities?” Olson replies, “The Court in the past has made no distinction based upon the nature of the entity that might own a share of a corporation.” Kagan then takes her turn, and begins: “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, I have three very quick points to make about the government position. The first is that this issue has a long history. For over a hundred years, Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections, and this Court has never questioned that judgment.” She begins to make her second point before Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the conservative majority, interrupts her. In 2012, author and reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write that Kagan almost certainly knows hers is a legal “suicide mission,” and can only hope that her arguments may sway the Court to narrow its decision and leave some of the existing body of campaign finance law intact. She tells Roberts later in the questioning period, “Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses, if it has to lose, the answer is yes.” Justice John Paul Stevens, the most senior of the liberal minority, attempts to assist Kagan in making her argument, suggesting that the Court should content itself with a narrow ruling, perhaps creating an exception in the McCain-Feingold law (see March 27, 2002) for the plaintiff’s documentary (see January 10-16, 2008) or for “ads that are financed exclusively by individuals even though they are sponsored by a corporation.” Kagan agrees with Stevens’s proposal. Stevens then says: “Nobody has explained why that wouldn’t be a proper solution, not nearly as drastic. Why is that not the wisest narrow solution of the problem before us?” Kagan, with help from Ginsburg, undoes some of the damage done by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart during the first argument, where he inadvertently gave the conservative justices the “censorship” argument by which they could justify a broader verdict. Ginsburg asks: “May I ask you one question that was highlighted in the prior argument, and that was if Congress could say no TV and radio ads, could it also say no newspaper ads, no campaign biographies? Last time, the answer was yes, Congress could, but it didn’t. Is that still the government’s answer?” Kagan replies: “The government’s answer has changed, Justice Ginsburg. We took the Court’s own reaction to some of those other hypotheticals very seriously. We went back, we considered the matter carefully.” Unlike Stewart, Kagan specifically says that the government cannot ban books. But the censorship argument remains. After the arguments, the justices render the same verdict: a 5-4 split favoring Citizens United. Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas vote in the majority, while Ginsburg, Stevens, and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor vote in the minority. The second round of questioning, with its much broader scope, gives Roberts and his conservative colleagues the justification they need to render a broad verdict that would gut existing campaign finance law (see January 21, 2010). [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]

Entity Tags: Elena Kagan, US Supreme Court, Citizens United, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, David Souter, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, John G. Roberts, Jr, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, Sonia Sotomayor, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malcolm Stewart, Clarence Thomas

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy.Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010] In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; OMB Watch, 1/27/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010; National Public Radio, 2012]
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010]
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “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. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010; Associated Press, 1/21/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010]
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Citizens United, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, New York Times, Nick Nyhart, Evan Tracey, David Bossie, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, John Paul Stevens, Malcolm Stewart, John G. Roberts, Jr, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Wall Street Journal celebrates the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010) as a victory for “free speech” (see January 21, 2010). In an unsigned editorial, the Journal celebrates the decision by stating that the Court used the Constitution to “rescue” the political system from “marauding government” elements, particularly a “reckless Congress.” The Journal claims that the Citizens United case rested on the Federal Election Commission (FEC)‘s refusal to allow the airing of a 90-minute political attack documentary on presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) because the film was “less than complimentary” of her. In reality, the FEC considered the film “electioneering” by the organization that released the film, Citizens United, and prohibited it from being shown on pay-per-view cable access (see January 10-16, 2008). The Court rejected campaign finance law’s limitation on corporate spending, prompting the Journal to state, “Corporations are entitled to the same right that individuals have to spend money on political speech for or against a candidate.” Any other state of affairs, the Journal writes, constitutes censorship. The Journal criticizes President Obama for speaking out against the decision (see January 21, 2010), saying that Obama put “on his new populist facade to call it ‘a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies,’ and other ‘special interests.’ Mr. Obama didn’t mention his union friends as one of those interests, but their political spending will also be protected by the logic of this ruling. The reality is that free speech is no one’s special interest.” The Journal dismisses promises by Congressional Democrats to pass legislation or even bring forth a constitutional amendment limiting corporate donations by stating, “Liberalism’s bullying tendencies are never more on display than when its denizens are at war with the speech rights of its opponents.” The Journal concludes by advocating that the Court overturn its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision (see January 30, 1976) that placed modest limits on corporate spending, in essence advocating the complete deregulation of campaign financing. “The Court did yesterday uphold disclosure rules, so a sensible step now would be for Congress to remove all campaign-finance limits subject only to immediate disclosure on the Internet,” the Journal states. “Citizens United is in any event a bracing declaration that Congress’s long and misbegotten campaign-finance crusade has reached a constitutional dead end.” [Wall Street Journal, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: Citizens United, Barack Obama, Wall Street Journal, US Supreme Court, Hillary Clinton, Federal Election Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington, DC, Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously holds that provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) violate the First Amendment in the case of a nonprofit, unincorporated organization called SpeechNow.org. SpeechNow collects contributions from individuals, but not corporations, and attempted to collect contributions in excess of what FECA allows. In late 2007, SpeechNow asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) if its fundraising plans would require it to register as a political committee, and the FEC responded that the law would require such registration, thus placing SpeechNow under federal guidelines for operation and fundraising. In February 2008, SpeechNow challenged that ruling in court, claiming that the restrictions under FECA were unconstitutional. FECA should not restrict the amount of money individuals can donate to the organization, it argued, and thusly should not face spending requirements. It also argued that the reporting limits under FECA are unduly burdensome. The district court ruled against SpeechNow, using two Supreme Court decisions as its precedents (see January 30, 1976 and December 10, 2003), and ruled that “nominally independent” organizations such as SpeechNow are “uniquely positioned to serve as conduits for corruption both in terms of the sale of access and the circumvention of the soft money ban.” SpeechNow appealed that decision. The appeals court reverses the decision, stating that the contribution limits under FECA are unconstitutional as applied to individuals. The reporting and organizational requirements under FECA are constitutionally valid, the court rules. The appeals court uses the recent Citizens United ruling as justification for its findings on contribution limits (see January 21, 2010). [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] The FEC argued that large contributions to groups that made independent expenditures could “lead to preferential access for donors and undue influence over officeholders,” but Chief Judge David Sentelle, writing for the court, retorts that such arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” Stephen M. Hoersting, who represents SpeechNow, says the ruling is a logical and welcome extension of the Citizens United ruling, stating, “The court affirmed that groups of passionate individuals, like billionaires—and corporations and unions after Citizens United—have the right to spend without limit to independently advocate for or against federal candidates.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010] Taken along with another court ruling, the SpeechNow case opens the way for the formation of so-called “super PACs,” “independent expenditure” entities that can be run by corporations or labor unions with monies directly from their treasuries, actions that have been banned for over 60 years (see 1925 and June 25, 1943). The New York Times will later define a super PAC as “a political committee whose primary purpose is to influence elections, and which can take unlimited amounts of money, outside of federal contribution limits, from rich people, unions, and corporations, pool it all together, and spend it to advocate for a candidate—as long as they are independent and not coordinated with the candidate.” Super PACs are not required by law to disclose who their donors are, how much money they have raised, and how much they spend. CNN will later write, “The high court’s decision allowed super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that monitors campaign finance practices, later writes that the laws underwriting Super PACs “prevent… voters from understanding who is truly behind many political messages.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; OpenSecrets (.org), 2012; CNN, 3/26/2012; New York Times, 5/22/2012]

Entity Tags: Stephen M. Hoersting, New York Times, Federal Election Commission, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, OpenSecrets (.org), David Sentelle, CNN, SpeechNow (.org)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

House Republicans rush a bill to the floor for a vote to eliminate all public funding of the presidential election. The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama, would eliminate one of the few remaining public funding methodologies for federal elections, and, critics say, give wealthy corporate and individual donors even more influence over elections. Public financing of presidential elections was made law by the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) and upheld by the Supreme Court (see January 30, 1976). The bill comes to a vote almost exactly a year after the Supreme Court allowed corporations and labor unions to make unlimited donations to political organizations (see January 21, 2010). The bill, HR 359, was sponsored by Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) in June 2009 and cosponsored by 17 other House members, all Republicans. It would eliminate the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account. The Republican House leadership did not hold hearings on the bill, nor allow it to be debated in committee. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) calls the bill “a sneak attack on the system,” and notes that the Republicans had pledged to observe “transparency and openness,” but instead are pushing through such a transformative bill without allowing debate. The bill passes the House on a 239-160 vote, with the Republican majority overriding the Democratic minority. Ten Democrats vote for the bill and one Republican votes against it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already introduced his version of the bill in the Senate, though Senate Democrats say the bill has no chance of passing; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says through a spokesperson that the bill will never be brought up for a vote. [Mother Jones, 1/24/2011; Raw Story, 1/25/2011; CNN, 1/26/2011; National Public Radio, 1/27/2011; Bloomberg, 1/27/2011]
Repair or Eliminate? - Presidential candidates who accept public funding must agree not to accept private donations in the fall campaign. Every presidential candidate from 1976 to 2008 has accepted public funding. In 2000, George W. Bush (R-TX) did not take public financing for his primary campaign, and in subsequent years no presidential nominee has taken such funding. In 2008, Barack Obama (D-IL) declined to take public financing for his general election, the first presidential nominee to do so. Republicans claim the elimination of the public funding program would save the government between $520 and $617 million over the next 10 years. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the public financing system needs to be updated. It was created in 1976, she notes, and does not reflect the needs of 21st-century candidates. Lawmakers from both parties have attempted, without success to introduce legislation to update the system. McConnell says that Americans do not believe in the PECF, citing declining public participation. The program is funded by a $3 check-off on individual tax returns; in 1980, almost 29 percent of tax returns carried the check-off, while in 2007 only 8.3 percent of tax returns checked off the donation. “In a time of exploding deficits and record debt, the last thing the American people want right now is to provide what amounts to welfare for politicians,” McConnell says. House Democrats have introduced legislation that would modify and update the PECF instead of end it. One of that legislation’s sponsors, David Price (D-NC), says, “Dare we forget what Watergate was all about?” (Price is referring to the post-Watergate origins of the PECF.) “President Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, fueled by huge quantities of corporate cash, paid for criminal acts and otherwise subverted the American electoral system. Let’s not return to the darkest days of our democracy.” [Mother Jones, 1/24/2011; CNN, 1/26/2011; National Public Radio, 1/27/2011; Bloomberg, 1/27/2011]
Obama Administration Opposes Bill - The Obama administration strongly opposes the bill, saying that the public financing system should be improved rather than eliminated. In a statement, the White House says: “The presidential election public financing system was enacted in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal to free the nation’s elections from the influence of corporations and other wealthy special interests. Rather than candidates having to rely on raising large sums of private money in order to run, the system provides qualifying presidential candidates with the option of accepting matching funds in the primary and a public grant in the general election.… H.R. 359 would kill the system, not strengthen it. Its effect would be to expand the power of corporations and special interests in the nation’s elections; to force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues; and to place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates.” [Raw Story, 1/25/2011]
Divided Response from Lawmakers - Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) says after the bill passes that voting it into effect “should be a no-brainer.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says that Congress “should come together to ensure that the American people are heard, that they are heard and that they are not drowned out by special interest dollars.” Republicans such as Aaron Schock (R-IL) call Democrats and the Obama administration “hypocrites” because in 2008, Obama turned down public financing. Schock says, “It was President Obama who killed it and made a mockery of public financing of president campaigns with his arrogant pressing of self advantage.” David Price (D-NC) makes an angry rejoinder, saying: “Talk about having it both ways. [Schock] comes onto this floor to condemn President Obama for opting out of the system, and then he proposes to abolish the system so that everybody has to opt out.” Cole also condemns Obama for not taking public financing in 2008, and says he believes public financing of elections should be illegal, but goes on to say that he supports Republicans who take public financing because it is a legal option. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) says: “Special interest money is having a corrosive effect on our democracy, eating away at the people’s confidence in their government and their elected representatives. The one beacon of light in this system is the public financing of presidential campaigns. It is, I would remind everyone, a voluntary system.” “This is an attempt to finish the job that the Supreme Court started with the Citizens United decision,” says Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). Schumer chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over campaign finance legislation. “It would bust one of the last dams protecting our election system from an uncontrolled flood of special-interest money.” [CNN, 1/26/2011; National Public Radio, 1/27/2011; Bloomberg, 1/27/2011]
Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Critical of Bill - David Arkush of the citizens advocacy group Public Citizen says in a statement, “A vote for HR 359 is a great way to tell the American people that you want to give corporations more power over our government rather than make democracy work for ordinary Americans.” Craig Holman of Public Citizen says of the bill: “Make no mistake about it: The Republican leadership’s legislation to eliminate public financing is an attack not just on the presidential public financing system, but also an attack on congressional public financing proposals. To ensure that the public’s voice can be heard against the corporate onslaught, we need to expand public financing of elections, not kill it.” Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 calls the bill “a gross abuse of the legislative process.” [Mother Jones, 1/24/2011; Raw Story, 1/25/2011] The nonpartisan Public Finance Action Fund, which advocates for public financing of state and federal elections, says in a statement: “These efforts are not about saving taxpayer money, they are about giving corporate donors even more access than they enjoy today. We hope these measures don’t advance any further.” [CNN, 1/26/2011]
Bill Dies in Senate - The bill will, as expected, not pass the Senate, which is under Democratic control. A similar bill will be introduced in December 2011 (see December 1, 2011), again pass the House, and die in the Senate. [Real Clear Politics, 12/1/2011]

Entity Tags: David E. Price, US Senate, US House of Representatives, Craig Holman, Aaron Schock, Barack Obama, Chris Van Hollen, David Arkush, Charles Schumer, Thomas Jeffery Cole, Public Finance Action Fund, US Supreme Court, Presidential Election Campaign Fund, Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Eric Cantor, Fred Wertheimer, George W. Bush, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Lynn Woolsey, Obama administration, Meredith McGehee, Nancy Pelosi

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

US District Judge James Cacheris throws out one count of the indictment against two men accused of illegally reimbursing donors to Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton’s Senate and presidential campaigns. In the ruling, Cacheris holds that the campaign finance law banning corporations from making contributions to federal candidates is unconstitutional. Cacheris rules that under the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (see January 21, 2010), corporations have the same right as people to contribute to campaigns. No one has attempted to extend the Citizens United ruling to apply directly to campaign contributions by corporations. Previously, the law has been interpreted to apply only to independent corporate expenditures. In his ruling, Cacheris notes that only one other court has addressed the issue, with a Minnesota federal judge ruling that a state ban on corporate contributions is legal. Cacheris writes: “[F]or better or worse, Citizens United held that there is no distinction between an individual and a corporation with respect to political speech. Thus, if an individual can make direct contributions within [the law’s] limits, a corporation cannot be banned from doing the same thing.… That logic is inescapable here.” In court filings, prosecutors defending campaign finance law in the Virginia case said that overturning the ban on corporate contributions would ignore a century of legal precedent. Prosecutor Mark Lytle wrote: “Defendants would have the court throw out a century of jurisprudence upholding the ban on corporate political contributions, by equating expenditures—which the Court struck down in Citizens United—with contributions. This is, however, equating apples and oranges.” The case, United States v. Danielczyk, concerns accusations that William P. Danielczyk Jr. and Eugene R. Biagi helped funnel a corporate contribution to Clinton’s presidential campaign. The two men allegedly reimbursed $30,200 to eight contributors who gave to Clinton’s 2006 Senate campaign, and reimbursed $156,400 to 35 contributors to her 2008 presidential campaign. Clinton is not named as a defendant in the case. [Associated Press, 5/27/2011; New York Times, 5/27/2011]
Strongly Mixed Reactions - Biaigi’s lawyer Todd Richman says after the ruling: “Corporate political speech can now be regulated, only to the same extent as the speech of individuals or other speakers. That is because Citizens United establishes that there can be no distinction between corporate and other speakers in the regulation of political speech.” Sean Parnell of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group opposing campaign-finance regulations, says, “This was definitely something that is almost incidental in terms of the case it was decided in.” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group supporting stricter campaign finance laws, says Cacheris went beyond his purview as a federal judge and ignored laws and Supreme Court rulings before the Citizens United decision that were not impacted (see February 7, 1972, April 26, 1978, and March 27, 2002). Had the Supreme Court wanted to overturn the ban on direct corporate campaign contributions, Wertheimer says, it could have done so in the Citizens United decision. Wertheimer says Cacheris’s ruling should be appealed and overturned. Law professor Daniel Ortiz says the ruling “pushes the outer limits of the Citizens United logic,” and will probably be overturned in a higher court. The Citizens United case differentiates between independent expenditures by corporations that are not coordinating with a candidate’s campaign, and direct campaign contributions. [Associated Press, 5/27/2011; New York Times, 5/27/2011] Ian Millhiser of the liberal news Web site Think Progress writes: “If today’s decision is upheld on appeal, it could be the end of any meaningful restrictions on campaign finance—including limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals and corporations can give to a candidate. In most states, all that is necessary to form a new corporation is to file the right paperwork in the appropriate government office. Moreover, nothing prevents one corporation from owning another corporation. Thus, under Cacheris’s decision, a cap on overall contributions becomes meaningless, because corporate donors can simply create a series of shell corporations for the purpose of evading such caps.” [Think Progress, 5/27/2011] Conservative legal scholar Eugene Volokh writes on his blog that he believes the Cacheris decision is in error. He believes the ban on corporate contributions to be legal and appropriate, though unlike Millhiser, he also supports the Citizens United decision. He cites the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision (see January 30, 1976) as limiting the means by which corporations can donate to political campaigns. He echoes Millhiser’s concerns about “shell corporations,” writing: “[T]he problem with corporate contributions is that they provide an avenue for evading individual contribution limits; if I want to donate $25,000 to a candidate instead of the $2,500 limit, I could set up nine corporations, and then donate myself and also have those corporations make similar donations. Few people would do that, but some people who want to be big political players might. Nor can this easily be dismissed as a supposed ‘sham’ and be thus distinguished from ‘legitimate’ corporate contributions.” The ban on direct corporate contributions does not stop individuals from donating directly to campaigns, Volokh writes, and thusly does not encroach on freedom of speech. [Eugene Volokh, 5/27/2011] Law professor Richard Hasen also believes the decision will be overturned or reconsidered, citing the Supreme Court’s ban on direct corporate spending in Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont (see June 16, 2003), a ruling that other courts have held was not overturned by the Citizens United decision. Neither the prosecution nor the defense referred to the Beaumont decision in their arguments. [Rick Hasen, 5/31/2011] “If this case stood, it would mean the end of campaign contribution limits for everyone, because it would be so easy to get around the law through a straw or sham corporation,” Hasen says. [New York Times, 5/27/2011]
Reconsideration - Four days later, Cacheris will ask for briefs from both sides in the case about the issues raised in his decision, indicating that he may well find that the Beaumont decision means that the ban on direct corporate contributions will remain in effect. [Rick Hasen, 5/31/2011] Cacheris will not reconsider his decision. [New York Times, 6/7/2011; Think Progress, 6/8/2011]
Appeals Court Overturns Decision - A day after Cacheris refuses to reconsider his decision, an appeals court will overrule his decision. [Think Progress, 6/9/2011; United States Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 6/9/2011 pdf file] In June 2012, a federal appeals court will find that the Citizens United ban does not apply to direct corporate contributions. Appellate Judge Royce Gregory will write, “Leaping to this conclusion ignores the well-established principle that independent expenditures and direct contributions are subject to different government interests.” [Thomson Reuters, 6/28/2012]

Entity Tags: Eugene R. Biagi, Eugene Volokh, Fred Wertheimer, Daniel Ortiz, William P. Danielczyk, Jr, Ian Millhiser, Sean Parnell, James Cacheris, Todd Richman, Richard L. Hasen, Mark Lytle, Royce Gregory, Hillary Clinton

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court strikes down part of an Arizona law providing public funding for political campaigns. In the case of Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett, the Court rules 5-4 that a provision in Arizona law providing additional funds to publicly funded candidates whose opponents use private donations to outspend them is illegal. Some opponents of unfettered outside spending feared that the Court would use the case to put an end to most, if not all, programs that provide public money to candidates; Think Progress’s Ian Millhiser explains: “Candidates will only agree to accept public financing if it won’t prevent them from running a competitive race. If a state offers only a few thousand dollars in public funds to a candidate whose opponent is backed by tens of millions of corporate dollars, then the non-corporate candidate will have no choice but to raise money on their own. To defend against this problem, Arizona developed a two-tiered public financing system. Candidates receive additional funds if their opponent or corporate interest groups overwhelm them with attack ads, and thus candidates who are determined not to be tainted by the corrupting influence of major donors are not left defenseless.” The ruling will not have an impact on the presidential race, since the federal public financing system lacks such a provision, and since it seems unlikely that either President Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney (R-MA) will use public financing in 2012. The case was brought by two organizations, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, on behalf of Arizona state candidates who rejected public funds. The groups argued that the provision infringed on those candidates’ freedom of speech by compelling them to spend less money to avoid triggering the additional funds.
Majority, Minority Opinions - Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed: “We hold that Arizona’s matching funds scheme substantially burdens protected political speech without serving a compelling state interest and, therefore, violates the First Amendment.” The matching funds provision “imposes an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises [his] First Amendment right[s],” Roberts adds. If the provision is allowed to stand, “the vigorous exercise of the right to use personal funds to finance campaign speech” leads to “advantages for opponents in the competitive context of electoral politics.” The privately funded candidate, Roberts writes, must “shoulder a special and potentially significant burden” when choosing to exercise his First Amendment right to spend funds on behalf of his candidacy. Justice Elena Kagan dissents, writing that the plaintiffs “are making a novel argument: that Arizona violated their First Amendment rights by disbursing funds to other speakers even though they could have received—but chose to spurn—the same financial assistance. Some people might call that chutzpah.”
Reactions - Attorney Bill Maurer, who represented the Institute for Justice, says the ruling “makes clear that the First Amendment is not an exception to campaign finance laws; it is the rule” (see January 30, 1976 and January 21, 2010). He adds that he hopes the ruling will serve as “a clear reminder to government officials that they may not coerce speakers to limit their own speech.” Millhiser writes: “So public financing laws can technically remain, but Arizona’s attempt to protect publicly financed candidates from a wave of corporate attack ads is absolutely forbidden. Moreover, because few candidates can know in advance whether the will face an onslaught of hostile corporate ads, most candidates will hedge their bets and avoid the risk of public financing.… Without unlimited corporate money in elections, most candidates could afford to take public funds unless their opponent had unusual access to wealth or wealthy donors.” Referring to the 5-4 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), Millhiser continues, “In the post-Citizens United America, however, no one is safe from corporate America’s nearly bottomless pool of potential campaign expenditures.” Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an organization opposed to the unrestricted influence of outside donors, says, “The five-vote Big Money majority on the court has spoken again in favor of wealthy special interests.” Fred Wertheimer of the campaign finance group Democracy 21 calls the ruling “another seriously misguided campaign finance decision,” but adds “it does not cast any doubt on the continued viability or constitutionality of a number of other existing public financing systems that do not include ‘trigger funds’ or similar provisions.” Common Cause President Bob Edgar says, “This is not the death knell of public financing.” [Politico, 6/27/2011; Think Progress, 6/27/2011]
Plaintiffs Financed by Wealthy Conservative Interests - The next day, Think Progress’s Lee Fang will reveal that the two groups who filed the lawsuit, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, are financed by wealthy conservative interests. The Institute for Justice, a group dedicated to bringing cases to court in order to deregulate private corporations and to increase the participation of wealthy corporate interests in elections, was created with “seed money” from oil billionaire Charles Koch (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, and September 24, 2010). The Walton Family Foundation, a foundation run by the billionaire family of Arkansas retailer Sam Walton (the founder of Wal-Mart), has donated $1.64 million to the group. The Foundation has written that the Citizens United decision and the Arizona case are two top priorities for the Institute. The Goldwater Institute, one of Arizona’s most prominent conservative think tanks, is focused on rolling back health care reform. The Institute is funded by several foundations, including the Walton and the Charles Koch Foundations. Fang notes that much of the funding for both groups remains undisclosed. [Think Progress, 6/28/2011]

Entity Tags: Fred Wertheimer, Elena Kagan, Bob Edgar, Bill Maurer, Barack Obama, Willard Mitt Romney, Walton Family Foundation, US Supreme Court, Nick Nyhart, Institute for Justice, John G. Roberts, Jr, Ian Millhiser, Goldwater Institute, Lee Fang, Charles Koch

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Representatives John Yarmuth (D-NY) and Walter Jones (R-NC) file a bill, the Yarmuth-Jones Disclose Act, that would amend the US Constitution to overturn the Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010) and take special-interest money out of American politics. The proposed amendment establishes that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected free speech under the First Amendment (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, June 26, 2008, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 22, 2010, March 26, 2010, and December 12, 2011). It also makes Election Day—the first Tuesday in November—a legal holiday, and enables Congress to establish a public financing system that would serve as the sole source of funding for federal elections (see 1974, January 26, 2011 and After, June 27, 2011, and December 1, 2011). Yarmuth explains his proposal in the context of the Citizens United case, saying: “Corporate money equals influence, not free speech. The last thing Congress needs is more corporate candidates who don’t answer to the American people. Until we get big money out of politics, we will never be able to responsibly address the major issues facing American families—and that starts by ensuring our elections and elected officials cannot be bought by the well-off and well-connected.” Jones says in a statement: “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed. The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.” Jones is one of the very few Republicans in Congress who is willing to advocate for campaign finance reform. It is unlikely the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House, and Senate Republicans would likely block it if it made it to that chamber. Amendments to the Constitution require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress before being approved by three-fourths of state legislatures. [US House of Representatives, 12/20/2011; WFPL, 12/20/2011; Think Progress, 12/20/2011] This is not the first attempt to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and regulate campaign financing (see September 20, 2011, November 23, 2010, November 1, 2011, and November 18, 2011).

Entity Tags: Walter Jones, 2012 Yarmuth-Jones Disclose Act, John Yarmuth

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) tells MSNBC reporter Chuck Todd that wealthy donors should be able to give unlimited amounts directly to candidates in lieu of donating to “independent” organizations such as super PACs (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, and November 23, 2011). The US history of campaign finance law (see 1883, 1896, December 5, 1905, 1907, June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), including the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), has always put stringent limitations on what donors can contribute directly to candidates. Asked if he thinks the Citizens United decision was a poor one, Romney responds: “Well, I think the Supreme Court decision was following their interpretation of the campaign finance laws that were written by Congress. My own view is now we tried a lot of efforts to try and restrict what can be given to campaigns, we’d be a lot wiser to say you can give what you’d like to a campaign. They must report it immediately and the creation of these independent expenditure committees that have to be separate from the candidate, that’s just a bad idea.” Ian Millhiser, a senior legal analyst for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, responds: “It’s not entirely clear from this interview that Romney understands what happened in Citizens United. That decision emphatically did not follow any ‘interpretation of campaign finance laws that were written by Congress.’ Rather, Citizens United threw out a 63-year-old federal ban on corporate money in politics.… [I]t was not a case of judges following the law. More importantly, however, Romney’s proposal to allow wealthy donors to give candidates whatever they’d ‘like to a campaign’ is simply an invitation to corruption (see October 17, 2011). Under Romney’s proposed rule, there is nothing preventing a single billionaire from bankrolling a candidate’s entire campaign—and then expecting that candidate to do whatever the wealthy donor wants once the candidate is elected to office. Romney’s unlimited donations proposal would be a bonanza for Romney himself and the army of Wall Street bankers and billionaire donors who support him, but it is very difficult to distinguish it from legalized bribery.” Millhiser notes that Romney had a different view on the subject in 1994, saying then that when you allow special interest groups to buy and sell candidates, “that kind of relationship has an influence on the way that [those candidates are] going to vote.” [Think Progress, 12/21/2011]

Entity Tags: Willard Mitt Romney, Charles David (“Chuck”) Todd, Ian Millhiser

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

The Republican National Committee (RNC) files a court brief calling the federal ban on direct corporate donations to candidates unconstitutional, and demanding it be overturned. Such direct donations are one of the few restrictions remaining on wealthy candidates wishing to influence elections after the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). The brief is in essence an appeal of a 2011 decision refusing to allow such direct donations (see May 26, 2011 and After). The RNC case echoes a request from Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) that he be allowed to form and direct his own super PAC (see November 23, 2011), and recent remarks by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) calling for donors to be allowed to contribute unlimited amounts to candidates (see December 21, 2011). The RNC brief claims: “Most corporations are not large entities waiting to flood the political system with contributions to curry influence. Most corporations are small businesses. As the Court noted in Citizens United, ‘more than 75 percent of corporations whose income is taxed under federal law have less than $1 million in receipts per year,’ while ‘96 percent of the 3 million businesses that belong to the US Chamber of Commerce have fewer than 100 employees.’ While the concept of corporate contributions evokes images of organizations like Exxon or Halliburton, with large numbers of shareholders and large corporate treasuries, the reality is that most corporations in the United States are small businesses more akin to a neighborhood store. Yet § 441b does not distinguish between these different types of entities; under § 441b, a corporation is a corporation. As such, it is over-inclusive.” Think Progress legal analyst Ian Millhiser says the RNC is attempting to refocus the discussion about corporate contributions onto “mom and pop stores” and away from large, wealthy corporations willing to donate millions to candidates’ campaigns. If the court finds in favor of the RNC, Millhiser writes: “it will effectively destroy any limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals or corporation[s] can give to candidates. In most states, all that is necessary to form a new corporation is to file the right paperwork in the appropriate government office. Moreover, nothing prevents one corporation from owning another corporation. For this reason, a Wall Street tycoon who wanted to give as much as a billion dollars to fund a campaign could do so simply by creating a series of shell corporations that exist for the sole purpose of evading the ban on massive dollar donations to candidates” (see October 30, 2011). [United States of America v. Danielcytk and Biagi, 1/10/2012 pdf file; Think Progress, 1/11/2012] The RNC made a similar attempt in 2010, in the aftermath of Citizens United; the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of its rejection. [New York Times, 5/3/2010; Tom Goldstein, 5/14/2012] Over 100 years of US jurisprudence and legislation has consistently barred corporations from making such unlimited donations (see 1883, 1896, December 5, 1905, 1907, June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, March 11, 1957, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003). Shortly after the Citizens United ruling, RNC lawyer James Bopp Jr. confirmed that this case, like the Citizens United case and others (see Mid-2004 and After), was part of a long-term strategy to completely dismantle campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010).

Entity Tags: Republican National Committee, Halliburton, Inc., ExxonMobil, Ian Millhiser, Michael Shumway (“Mike”) Lee, Willard Mitt Romney, US Supreme Court, US Chamber of Commerce, James Bopp, Jr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Author and political science professor Richard Hasen provides data showing that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) is directly responsible for a huge rise in corporate “outside” spending on behalf of political campaigns. Recent arguments in defense of the decision have said that “super PACs,” the “independent” political entities that take corporate, labor union, and individual donations for the purpose of making television ads in support of, or opposition to, a particular candidate or party (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, January 4, 2012, and February 20, 2012) were not created by the Court’s decision, and therefore Citizens United cannot be held responsible for the enormous surge in spending since the decision was rendered. The arguments equate older “527” organizations (see 2000 - 2005, March 2000 and After, and June 30, 2000) and the enormous donations made on their behalf (see January - November 2004) with the activities of super PACs after the Citizens United decision. “The purpose of the drumbeat appears to be to insulate the Supreme Court from further criticism of the Frankenstein’s monster they’ve created,” Hasen writes. He shows that the two types of organizations—527s and super PACs—are quite different. “It is true that before Citizens United people could spend unlimited sums on independent advertising directly supporting or opposing candidates,” Hasen explains. “But that money had to be spent by the individual directly. It could not be given to a political action committee, which had an individual contribution cap of $5,000 and could not take corporate or union funding. In many cases, wealthy individuals did not want to spend their own money on advertising, which would say, ‘Paid for by Sheldon Adelson’ or ‘Paid for by George Soros,’ so fewer of these ads were made. The only way to avoid having your name plastered across every ad was to give to the 527s, which claimed they could take unlimited money from individuals (including, sometimes, corporate and labor union money) on grounds that they were not PACs under the FEC’s definition of PACs. These organizations were somewhat successful, but a legal cloud always hung over them.” After Citizens United, courts and the Federal Election Commission ruled that super PACs could collect unlimited sums from corporations, unions, and individuals for unlimited independent spending. Hasen writes: “The theory was that, per Citizens United, if independent spending cannot corrupt, then contributions to fund independent spending cannot corrupt either. (I am quite critical of this theory about corruption, but that’s besides the point here.) So what was once of questionable legality before the court’s decision was fully blessed after Citizens United.” Using data from the Center for Responsive Politics and its OpenSecrets (.org) Web site, Hasen compares spending during presidential election years.
bullet 1992: Wealthy individuals, organizations, and corporations are allowed to spend unlimited sums (see January 30, 1976). Outside spending in that campaign, up through early March 1992, was about $1.5 million.
bullet 2000: The law remains essentially unchanged. By March 2000, outside spending was around $2.6 million.
bullet 2004: With the advent of “527” groups, by March 2004, outside spending rose to $14 million.
bullet 2008: Under similar conditions as 2004, by March 2008, outside spending rose to $37.5 million.
bullet 2012: In the first presidential campaign year after the Citizens United decision, spending as of early March 2012 is over $88 million.
2012 outside spending is at 234 percent of 2008 spending, and 628 percent of 2004 outside spending. Hasen writes, “If this was not caused by Citizens United, we have a mighty big coincidence on our hands.” Hasen expects outside spending to rise dramatically once the Republican primary is concluded and the presumptive Republican nominee begins campaigning against President Obama. “Wait until the super PACs and other organizations start raising their unlimited sums for the general election,” Hasen warns. “Further, lots of groups are now using 501(c) organizations rather than super PACs for their campaign spending, in an effort to hide their donors.” Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that during the 2010 midterm elections, spending from groups that used the law to hide their donors rose from 1 percent in 2006 to 47 percent. Moreover, “501(c) non-profit spending increased from 0 percent of total spending by outside groups in 2006 to 42 percent in 2010.” And 72 percent “of political advertising spending by outside groups in 2010 came from sources that were prohibited from spending money in 2006.” The record-breaking spending in the 2008 presidential election—$301 million—was eclipsed in the first post-Citizens United election, the 2010 midterms, when corporate and other outside spending topped out at $304.6 million. Hasen writes: “It was an incredible number for a midterm election season. Why did that happen? Citizens United was decided early in 2010.” [Slate, 3/9/2012]

Entity Tags: Sheldon Adelson, Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsive Politics, Barack Obama, George Soros, US Supreme Court, Richard L. Hasen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jeffrey Toobin in 2007.Jeffrey Toobin in 2007. [Source: Wikimedia]Author and political pundit, Jeffrey Toobin, publishes an in-depth article for the New Yorker showing that Chief Justice John Roberts engineered the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010), moving it from a case that could well have been considered and decided on a relatively narrow basis to a sweeping decision that reformed the nation’s campaign finance structure. Toobin writes that the underlying issue was quite narrow: the conservative advocacy organization Citizens United (CU) wanted to run a documentary attacking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) on “video on demand” cable broadcast (see January 10-16, 2008). Under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation (see March 27, 2002 and December 10, 2003), the Federal Election Commission (FEC) disallowed the broadcast because it would come 30 days or less before primary elections. CU challenged the decision in court (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). [New Yorker, 5/21/2012] Toobin’s article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Oath: The Obama White House vs. The Supreme Court. It is dated May 21, but appears on the New Yorker’s Web site on May 14. [Tom Goldstein, 5/14/2012]
Oral Arguments - During the initial arguments (see March 15, 2009), attorney Theodore Olson, the former solicitor general for the Bush administration, argued a narrow case: that McCain-Feingold’s prohibitions only applied to television commercials, not to full-length documentary films. Olson argued, “This sort of communication was not something that Congress intended to prohibit.” Toobin writes: “Olson’s argument indicated that there was no need for the Court to declare any part of the law unconstitutional, or even to address the First Amendment implications of the case. Olson simply sought a judgment that McCain-Feingold did not apply to documentaries shown through video on demand.… If the justices had resolved the case as Olson had suggested, today Citizens United might well be forgotten—a narrow ruling on a remote aspect of campaign-finance law.” However, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most vocal opponents of campaign finance restrictions on the Court (see September 26, 1986, December 15, 1986, March 27, 1990, June 26, 1996, June 16, 2003, December 10, 2003, and June 25, 2007), seemed disappointed in the limited nature of Olson’s argument, Toobin writes. The oral arguments expand the case far beyond Olson’s initial position. Olson’s initial intention was to narrow the case so that the Court would not have to expand its scope to find in favor of CU.
Change of Scope - Ironically, the government’s lead lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, may well have changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation. Traditionally, lawyers with the solicitor general (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. Toobin writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who had clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. But, Toobin writes, Stewart fell into a trap, prompted by Justice Samuel Alito’s pointed questioning about the government’s ability to ban or censor printed materials—i.e. books—under McCain-Feingold—and follow-up questions by Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, that led him to claim incorrectly that the government could indeed censor books under the law. Stewart’s incorrect assertion gave Roberts and his colleagues the chance to overturn McCain-Feingold on the grounds of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Second Arguments - The second arguments were held on September 9, 2009 (see September 9, 2009). The concept of “money equals speech” goes back at least as far as the 1976 Buckley decision (see January 30, 1976), and the five conservative justices were poised to stretch that definition much farther than has previously been done.
Majority Opinion - Toobin writes that Roberts’s decision was then to decide “how much he wanted to help the Republican Party. Roberts’s choice was: a lot.” Roberts assigned the opinion to Kennedy, the “swing” justice who had already written an expansive opinion gutting almost a century’s worth of campaign finance legislation. Kennedy tends to “swing wildly in one direction or another,” Toobin writes, “an extremist—of varied enthusiasms.” In the area of campaign finance, he has consistently “swung” to the conservative side of the argument. He is, Toobin writes, “extremely receptive to arguments that the government had unduly restricted freedom of speech—especially in the area of campaign finance.” Moreover, Kennedy enjoys writing controversial and “high-profile” opinions. Toobin says that Roberts’s choice of Kennedy to write the opinion was clever: Roberts came onto the Court promising to conduct himself with judicial modesty and a respect for precedent. Kennedy, with his draft opinion at the ready, was a better choice to write an opinion that lacked either modesty or a respect for Court precedence. Roberts, Toobin writes, “obtained a far-reaching result without leaving his own fingerprints.” Kennedy, in an often-eloquent opinion that did not deal with the gritty reality of the Citizens United case, stated that any restraint of money in a campaign risked infringing on free speech. “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.… By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker’s voice. The government may not by these means deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration. The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.” Kennedy also reaffirmed the Court’s perception that corporations deserve the same First Amendment protections enjoyed by individuals. Kennedy’s opinion found, in Toobin’s words, that “[t]he Constitution required that all corporations, for-profit and nonprofit alike, be allowed to spend as much as they wanted, anytime they wanted, in support of the candidates of their choosing.” One of the only provisions remaining in McCain-Feingold after Kennedy’s opinion was the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates.
Fiery Dissent from 'Liberal' Stevens - Toobin reminds readers that the elder statesman of the “liberal” wing of the Court at the time, John Paul Stevens, is a “moderate Midwestern Republican,” one of the last of a “vanishing political tradition.” Though Stevens’s views have migrated left on some issues, such as the death penalty, Toobin writes that the perception of Stevens as a Court liberal is mostly because of the Court’s steady progression to the right. Toobin writes that the 90-year-old Stevens has grown dispirited in recent years, as the conservative wing of the Court, led by Scalia, Alito, and Roberts with Clarence Thomas and often Kennedy in tow, overturned one Court precedent after another. “The course of Citizens United represented everything that offended Stevens most about the Roberts Court,” Toobin writes. Much of Stevens’s objections to the Roberts Court are rooted in procedure; he is deeply troubled by the Citizens United case being transformed by Roberts and his conservative colleagues from a narrowly focused case about a single McCain-Feingold provision to what Toobin calls “an assault on a century of federal laws and precedents. To Stevens, it was the purest kind of judicial activism.” Stevens wrote in his angry dissent, “Five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” A simple change in the McCain-Feingold law to disallow its application to full-length documentaries the CU case was sparked by, or even to nonprofit organizations such as CU, would have been appropriate, Stevens wrote. He penned a 90-page dissent, the longest of his career, blasting almost every aspect of Kennedy’s decision, starting with Kennedy’s ignoring of precedent and continuing with a refutation of Kennedy’s perception of the Constitutional definitions of “censorship” and “free speech.” Stevens was angered by Kennedy’s equivocation of corporations with people. “The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare,” he wrote. “Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.” Congress has drawn significant distinctions between corporations and people for over a century, he wrote: “at the federal level, the express distinction between corporate and individual political spending on elections stretches back to 1907, when Congress passed the Tillman Act” (see 1907). He even challenged Kennedy’s stated fear that the government might persecute individuals’ speech based on “the speaker’s identity,” sarcastically noting that Kennedy’s opinion “would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ [a famed Japanese propagandist] during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.” According to Toobin, Stevens’s law clerks disliked the dated reference, but Stevens, a Navy veteran, insisted on keeping it. Toobin writes that “Stevens’s conclusion was despairing.” Stevens concluded: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.… It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Toobin notes that as “impressive” as Stevens’s dissent may have been, it was Kennedy’s opinion that “was reshaping American politics.”
Reaction - In his State of the Union address six days after the verdict, President Obama referenced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concerns about foreign influence in American politics by saying, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections” (see January 27-29, 2010). Democrats cheered as Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.” Alito’s mouthing of the words “not true” stirred some controversy; Toobin notes that Alito was technically correct, as “Kennedy’s opinion expressly reserved the question of whether the ruling applied to foreign corporations.” However, Toobin notes, “as Olson had argued before the justices, the logic of the Court’s prior decisions suggested that foreign corporations had equal rights to spend in American elections.” With the Citizens United decision and a March 2010 decision that allowed for the formation of “super PACs” (see March 26, 2010), the way was clear for what Toobin calls “presidential campaigns in 2012 that were essentially underwritten by single individuals.” He notes the billionaires that almost single-handedly supported Republican presidential candidates (see February 21, 2012, February 16-17, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 26, 2012, and April 22, 2012), and the efforts of organizations like Crossroads GPS that have to date raised tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates (see May 2, 2012). Toobin believes that the Court will continue to deregulate campaign finance, noting the 2011 decision that invalidated Arizona’s system of public financing that state enacted after a series of campaign finance scandals (see June 27, 2011). He concludes, “The Roberts Court, it appears, will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom to raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Criticisms of the Article - Toobin’s article will engender significant criticism, from nuanced questioning of particular elements of Toobin’s story (see May 14, 2012) to accusations of outright “fictionalizing” (see May 17, 2012) and “libelous” claims (see May 15-17, 2012).

Entity Tags: Clarence Thomas, US Supreme Court, Citizens United, Barack Obama, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, American Crossroads GPS, Tillman Act, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens, John G. Roberts, Jr, Malcolm Stewart, Jeffrey Toobin, Republican Party, Hillary Clinton, Samuel Alito, Federal Election Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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