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Context of 'March 24, 2008: Supreme Court Sends ‘Citizens United’ Campaign Case Back to Lower Court'

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After years of battling Republican filibuster efforts and other Congressional impediments, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is signed into law. Dubbed the “McCain-Feingold Act” after its two Senate sponsors, John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), when the law takes effect after the 2002 midterm elections, national political parties will no longer be allowed to raise so-called “soft money” (unregulated contributions) from wealthy donors. The legislation also raises “hard money” (federal money) limits, and tries, with limited success, to eliminate so-called “issue advertising,” where organizations not directly affiliated with a candidate run “issues ads” that promote or attack specific candidates. The act defines political advertising as “electioneering communication,” and prohibits advertising paid for by corporations or by an “unincorporated entity” funded by corporations or labor unions (with exceptions—see June 25, 2007). To a lesser extent, the BCRA also applies to state elections. In large part, it supplants the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980). [Federal Election Commission, 2002; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file]
Bush: Bill 'Far from Perfect' - Calling the bill “far from perfect,” President Bush signs it into law, taking credit for the bill’s restrictions on “soft money,” which the White House and Congressional Republicans had long opposed. Bush says: “This legislation is the culmination of more than six years of debate among a vast array of legislators, citizens, and groups. Accordingly, it does not represent the full ideals of any one point of view. But it does represent progress in this often-contentious area of public policy debate. Taken as a whole, this bill improves the current system of financing for federal campaigns, and therefore I have signed it into law.” [Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; White House, 3/27/2002]
'Soft Money' Ban - The ban on so-called “soft money,” or “nonfederal contributions,” affects contributions given to political parties for purposes other than supporting specific candidates for federal office (“hard money”). In theory, soft money contributions can be used for purposes such as party building, voter outreach, and other activities. Corporations and labor unions are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates for federal office, but they can give soft money to parties. Via legal loopholes and other, sometimes questionable, methodologies, soft money contributions can be used for television ads in support of (or opposition to) a candidate, making the two kinds of monies almost indistinguishable. The BCRA bans soft money contributions to political parties. National parties are prohibited from soliciting, receiving, directing, transferring, and spending soft money. State and local parties can no longer spend soft money for any advertisements or other voter communications that identify a candidate for federal office and either promote or attack that candidate. Federal officeholders and candidates cannot solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend soft money in connection with any election. State officeholders and candidates cannot spend soft money on any sort of communication that identifies a candidate for federal office and either promotes or attacks that candidate. [Legal Information Institute, 12/2003; ThisNation, 2012]
Defining 'Issue Advertisements' or 'Electioneering Communications' - In a subject related to the soft money section, the BCRA addresses so-called “issue advertisements” sponsored by outside, third-party organizations and individuals—in other words, ads by people or organizations who are not candidates or campaign organizations. The BCRA defines an “issue ad,” or as the legislation calls it, “electioneering communication,” as one that is disseminated by cable, broadcast, or satellite; refers to a candidate for federal office; is disseminated in a particular time period before an election; and is targeted towards a relevant electorate with the exception of presidential or vice-presidential ads. The legislation anticipates that this definition might be overturned by a court, and provides the following “backup” definition: any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication which promotes or supports a candidate for that office, or attacks or opposes a candidate for that office (regardless of whether the communication expressly advocates a vote for or against a candidate).
Corporation and Labor Union Restrictions - The BCRA prohibits corporations and labor unions from using monies from their general treasuries for political communications. If these organizations wish to participate in a political process, they can form a PAC and allocate specific funds to that group. PAC expenditures are not limited.
Nonprofit Corporations - The BCRA provides an exception to the above for “nonprofit corporations,” allowing them to fund electioneering activities and communications from their general treasuries. These nonprofits are subject to disclosure requirements, and may not receive donations from corporations or labor unions.
Disclosure and Coordination Restrictions - This part of the BCRA amends the sections of FECA that addresses disclosure and “coordinated expenditure” issues—the idea that “independent” organizations such as PACs could coordinate their electioneering communications with those of the campaign it supports. It includes the so-called “millionaire provisions” that allow candidates to raise funds through increased contribution limits if their opponent’s self-financed personal campaign contributions exceed a certain amount.
Broadcast Restrictions - The BCRA establishes requirements for television broadcasts. All political advertisements must identify their sponsor. It also modifies an earlier law requiring broadcast stations to sell airtime at its lowest prices. Broadcast licensees must collect and disclose records of purchases made for the purpose of political advertisements.
Increased Contribution Limits - The BCRA increases contribution limits. It also bans contributions from minors, with the idea that parents would use their children as unwitting and unlawful conduits to avoid contribution limits.
Lawsuits Challenge Constitutionality - The same day that Bush signs the law into effect, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the BCRA (see December 10, 2003). [Legal Information Institute, 12/2003]

Entity Tags: Russell D. Feingold, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, National Rifle Association, George W. Bush, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A poster promoting ‘Hillary: The Movie.’A poster promoting ‘Hillary: The Movie.’ [Source: New York Times]The conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU—see May 1998 and (May 11, 2004)) releases a film entitled Hillary: The Movie. The film is a lengthy diatribe attacking the character and career of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Large portions of the film are comprised of conservative critics launching attacks against the personalities and character of Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) says he based his film on a documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, released in 2004 by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore (see August 6, 2004), and calls it “a rigorously researched critical biography” comparable to the material presented on political talk shows such as Meet the Press. [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] Bossie intended for the film to be released in late 2007 and impact the 2008 race in the same way that he believes Fahrenheit 9/11 impacted the 2004 race. A cable company made the film, at a cost of $1.2 million, available for free to viewers on “video on demand.” Bossie also scheduled a small theater run for the film, but his primary focus was always cable television and the accompanying television advertisements. Knowing the film will probably run afoul of campaign law, he hired lawyers, first James Bopp Jr. (a former member of the far-right Young Americans for Freedom—YAF—and the former general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee—see November 1980 and After) [New Yorker, 5/21/2012] and later Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general under the Bush administration. Olson will later say the film is “a critical biographical assessment” that provides “historical information about the candidate and, perhaps, some measure of entertainment as well.” The New York Times calls it “a scathingly hostile look at Mrs. Clinton” replete with “ripe voice-overs, shadowy re-enactments, and spooky mood music.” The film also contains interviews and material from mainstream media reporters, and interviews with figures such as former CIA agent Gary Aldrich, who wrote a “tell-all” book about the Clinton administration, and with Kathleen Willey, who has claimed that Bill Clinton once made an unwelcome sexual advance towards her. Reviewer Megan Carpentier of Radar Online will trounce the movie, saying that it “scrolls through more than a decade of press clippings and a treasure trove of unflattering pictures in its one-sided romp” and will advise potential viewers to watch it “while inebriated in the manner of your choosing, and only if you don’t pay $10 for the privilege.” [New York Times, 3/5/2009] Bossie claims the movie has nothing to do with the impending primary elections. CU intends to show the movie in a small number of theaters but primarily on “video on demand” cable broadcasts, with accompanying television advertisements. In return for a $1.2 million fee, a cable television consortium has agreed to make the movie freely available to its customers as part of what CU calls its “Election ‘08” series. (CU has another negative documentary on Clinton’s Democratic challenger Barack Obama in the works—see October 28-30, 2008—but apparently has no plans to air any documentaries on Republican candidate John McCain or any other Republican presidential candidates.) However, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refuses to allow the film to be aired on cable channels, or advertised for theater release, because the FEC considers the film “electioneering” and thus subject to campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002) restrictions. Moreover, the film and its planned distribution are funded by corporate donations. [United States District Court for the District Of Columbia, 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen, 1/15/2008; New Yorker, 5/21/2012] Bossie claims the film takes no position on Clinton’s candidacy, and says that if he had to vote between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he would vote for Clinton. [New York Times, 3/5/2009]
Court Fight - Bopp, CU’s original lawyer, decides to pursue the same general aggressive course that he took in a recent successful Supreme Court campaign finance case, the Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) decision (see Mid-2004 and After). The Hillary film was envisioned from the outset to serve multiple purposes: to advance conservative ideology, damage Clinton’s presidential chances (despite Bossie’s claims), and generate profits. Bopp knows that the FEC would likely classify the film as a political advertisement and not a work of journalism or entertainment (see August 6, 2004), and therefore would fall under campaign law restrictions. Before the film is officially released, Bopp takes the film to the FEC for a ruling, and when the FEC, as expected, rules the film to be “electioneering communication” that comes under campaign law restrictions, Bopp files a lawsuit with the Washington, DC, federal district court. The court rules in favor of the FEC judgment, denying CU its request for a preliminary injunction against the FEC’s ruling. The court specifically finds that the WRTL decision does not apply in this case. “[I]f the speech cannot be interpreted as anything other than an appeal to vote for or against a candidate, it will not be considered genuine issue speech even if it does not expressly advocate the candidate’s election or defeat,” the court states. The court also questions CU’s statement that the film “does not focus on legislative issues.… The movie references the election and Senator Clinton’s candidacy, and it takes a position on her character, qualifications, and fitness for office.” Film commentator Dick Morris has said of the film that it will “give people the flavor and an understanding of why she should not be president.” The court rules, “The movie is susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” (During arguments, Bopp says that the film is much like what a viewer would see on CBS’s evening news show 60 Minutes, and Judge Royce Lamberth laughs aloud, saying: “You can’t compare this to 60 Minutes. Did you read this transcript?” Other judges find it problematic that one of the film’s central “issues” is its assertion that Clinton is, in Bopp’s words, “a European socialist,” but still claims not to be overtly partisan.) [Mother Jones, 1/13/2008; United States District Court for the District Of Columbia, 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen, 1/15/2008; New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Supreme Court Appeal - CU appeals the court’s decision directly to the Supreme Court. Bossie soon decides to replace Bopp with Olson, a far more prominent figure in conservative legal circles. Toobin will write: “Ted Olson had argued and won Bush v. Gore (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000), and was rewarded by President Bush with an appointment as solicitor general. Olson had argued before the Supreme Court dozens of times, and he had a great deal of credibility with the justices. He knew how to win.” [Richard Hasen, 1/15/2008; New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Previous Attempt - In September 2004, Bossie and CU attempted, without success, to release a similar “documentary” supporting President Bush and attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) on television, just weeks before the presidential election. The FEC turned down the group’s request. The FEC did allow the film to be shown in theaters (see September 8, 2004 and September 27-30, 2004).
'Ten-Year Plan' - Bopp will later reveal that the lawsuit is part of what he will call a “10-year plan” to push the boundaries of campaign finance law, and that he urged Bossie and other CU officials to use the documentary as a “test case” for overturning the body of law (see January 25, 2010).

Entity Tags: William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Kathleen Willey, Megan Carpentier, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, New York Times, Michael Moore, John McCain, Royce Lamberth, James Bopp, Jr, Dick Morris, Gary Aldrich, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), Hillary Clinton, Citizens United, David Bossie, Federal Election Commission, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2008 Elections

The Supreme Court dismisses an appeal by the political advocacy group Citizens United (CU) that argued the group’s First Amendment rights had been violated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The Court had agreed to hear CU’s case that it should be allowed to broadcast a partisan political documentary about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Hillary: The Movie, on cable television networks in the days before critical primary elections (see January 10-16, 2008). The Court did not rule on the merits of the case, but instead ruled that CU should have filed its case first with the federal appeals court in Washington. The ruling does not dismiss the case entirely, but makes it unlikely that the Court will rule on the campaign law issues surrounding the case (see March 27, 2002) before the November 2008 elections. Lawyer James Bopp, representing CU, says, “It is our intention to get the case expeditiously resolved on the merits in the district court, and then if we are unsuccessful there, to appeal” again to the Court. Bopp accuses Justice Department lawyers of trying to slow down the case to prevent it being resolved before the election. CU also wants to release a similar documentary about the other leading Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008), in a similar fashion to its planned widespread release of the Clinton film. Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court’s more liberal members, says in the order dismissing the appeal that had the case been taken up, he would have affirmed the previous decision in favor of the FEC. None of the other justices made any public statement about the case. The case will be heard by the Washington, DC, federal appeals court. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/24/2008] The appeals court will find against CU, and the organization will reapply to the Court for a hearing, an application which will be granted (see March 15, 2009).

Entity Tags: James Bopp, Jr, Barack Obama, Citizens United, Federal Election Commission, Hillary Clinton, US Department of Justice, US Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Cover illustration of the ‘Hype’ DVD.Cover illustration of the ‘Hype’ DVD. [Source: Amazon (.com)]The conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU) distributes hundreds of thousands of DVDs in newspapers throughout Ohio, Florida, and Nevada, all considered “swing states” in the upcoming presidential election. The DVDs contain a “documentary” entitled Hype: The Obama Effect and are characterized by CU as “truthful attack[s]” on Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). Previous advertisements for the film said the film portrays Obama as an “overhyped media darling,” and quoted conservative pundit Tucker Carlson as saying: “The press loves Obama. I mean not just love, but sort of like an early teenage crush.” The DVD distribution takes place just days before the November 4 election. CU says it is spending over a million dollars to distribute around 1.25 million DVDs, which are included with delivery and store-bought copies of five newspapers: the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Palm Beach (Florida) Post, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The film attacks Obama’s record on abortion rights, foreign policy, and what the Associated Press calls his “past relationships” with, among others, his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright (see January 6-11, 2008). The DVD also attempts to tie Obama to political corruption in Illinois, and lambasts the news media for what CU calls its preferential treatment of Obama. CU president David Bossie says: “We think it’s a truthful attack. People can take it any way they want.” Bossie was fired from his position on a Republican House member’s staff in 1998 for releasing fraudulently edited transcripts of a former Clinton administration official to falsely imply that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton had committed crimes (see May 1998). Among those interviewed about Obama for the film are conservative columnist Robert Novak, conservative pundit Dick Morris, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), and author and pundit Jerome Corsi, whom the AP terms a “discredited critic” of Obama. Obama campaign spokesman Isaac Baker calls the DVD “slash and burn politics,” and says the DVD is another tactic of the presidential campaign of John McCain (R-AZ) to “smear” Obama with “dishonest, debunked attacks from the fringes of the far right.” [New York Times, 7/22/2008; Associated Press, 10/28/2008; Media Matters, 10/29/2008]
Newspaper Official Defends Decision to Include DVD - Palm Beach Post general manager Charles Gerardi says of his paper’s decision to include the DVD in its Friday distribution: “Citizens United has every right to place this message as a paid advertisement, and our readers have every right to see it, even if they don’t agree with it. That we accepted it as a paid advertisement in no way implies that this newspaper agrees or disagrees with its message.” [Palm Beach Post, 10/31/2008]
Falsehoods, Misrepresentations, and Lies - Within days, the liberal media watchdog organization Media Matters finds that the DVD is riddled with errors, misrepresentations, and lies.
Claim that Obama 'Threw' Illinois State Senate Election - On the DVD, author David Freddoso claims that in 1998, Obama managed to “thr[o]w all of his opponents off the ballot” to win an election to the Illinois State Senate, a claim that has been disproved.
Claim that Obama Refuses to Work with Republicans - Freddoso also asserts that there are no instances of Obama’s stints in the Illinois State Senate nor the US Senate where he was willing to work with Republicans on legislation, an assertion that Freddoso himself inadvertently disproves by citing several instances of legislation Obama joined with Republicans to pass.
Claim that Obama Wants to Raise Taxes on Middle Class and Small Business - The DVD’s narrator misrepresents Obama’s campaign statements to falsely claim that Obama has promised to “irrevocabl[y]” raise taxes on citizens making over $100,000 to fund Social Security; the reality is that Obama’s proposed tax increase would affect citizens making $250,000 or more. The DVD narrator makes similarly false claims about Obama’s stance on raising the capital gains tax, and on raising taxes on small business owners. Conservative radio host Armstrong Williams tells viewers that Obama will raise taxes on small businesses that employ only a few workers, when in fact Obama has repeatedly proposed cutting taxes on most small businesses. Huckabee makes similar claims later in the DVD.
Claim that Obama Supports Immigration 'Amnesty' - The narrator misrepresents Obama’s stance on immigration reform as “amnesty for the 12 to 20 million people who violated US immigration law,” a position that Obama’s “Plan for Immigration” rejects.
Claim that Obama Wants 'Centralized Government' Health Care - Blackwell, now a contributing editor for the conservative publication TownHall, falsely claims that Obama wants to implement what he calls “a centralized government program that hasn’t worked in Canada, hasn’t worked in England, that has actually taken the freedom from the consumer and limited the choices.” Organizations such as PolitiFact and the New York Times have called claims that Obama supports government-run “single payer” health care false.
Claim that Obama Refused to Protect Lives of Infants - Conservative columnist and anti-abortion activist Jill Stanek claims that Obama opposed legislation that would have protected the lives of babies “born alive” during botched abortion efforts, when in fact no such legislation was ever proposed—the law already protects babies in such circumstances—and the Illinois Department of Public Health has said no such case exists in its records. (Stanek has claimed that she has witnessed such incidents during her time as an Illinois hospital worker.) Stanek has said that she believes domestic violence against women who have had abortions is acceptable, claimed that Chinese people eat aborted fetuses as “much sought after delicacies,” and claimed that Obama “supports infanticide.”
Claim that Obama Supported Attack on Petraeus - The DVD narrator claims that as a US senator, Obama refused to vote for a bill that condemned an attack by liberal grassroots activist organization MoveOn.org on General David Petraeus. In reality, Obama did vote to support an amendment that condemned the MoveOn advertisement.
Claim that Obama Supported Award for Farrakhan - The DVD narrator claims that Obama has aligned himself with the controversial head of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and cites the 2007 decision by Obama’s then-church, Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, to award a lifetime achievement award to Farrakhan. In reality, Obama denounced Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, and stated that he did not agree with the Trinity decision to give Farrakhan the award.
Claim of Suspiciously Preferential Loan Rate - The DVD narrator claims that Obama received a suspiciously “preferential rate on his super-jumbo loan for the purchase” of a “mansion” in Hyde Park, Illinois, from Northern Trust, an Illinois bank. A Washington Post reporter did make such a claim in a report, but subsequent investigation by Politico and the Columbia Journalism Review showed that the rate Obama received on the loan was consistent with other loans Northern Trust made at the time and not significantly below the average loan rate.
'Citizen of the World' - Corsi claims that Obama does not consider himself an American, but a “citizen of the world.” Media Matters has found numerous instances where Obama proclaims himself a proud American as well as “a fellow citizen of the world.” In 1982, Media Matters notes, then-President Reagan addressed the United Nations General Assembly by saying, “I speak today as both a citizen of the United States and of the world.” Media Matters notes that Corsi’s anti-Obama book Obama Nation was widely and thoroughly debunked (see August 1, 2008 and After), and since its publication, Corsi has made a number of inflammatory and false accusations about Obama and his family (see August 15, 2008, August 16, 2008, September 7, 2008, October 8, 2008, October 9, 2008, July 21, 2009, and September 21, 2010). [Media Matters, 10/30/2008]

The US Supreme Court hears the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refused to let the conservative lobbying organization Citizens United (CU) air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 presidential primary season (see January 10-16, 2008). The FEC ruled that H:TM, as some have shortened the name, was not a film, but a 90-minute campaign ad with no other purpose than to smear and attack Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as being unfit to hold office. A panel of appeals judges agreed with the FEC’s ruling, which found the film was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” As a campaign ad, the film’s airing on national network television came under campaign finance laws, particularly since the film was financed by corporate political donations. CU was allowed to air the film in theaters and sell it in DVD and other formats, but CU wanted to pay $1.2 million to have the movie aired on broadcast cable channels and video-on-demand (pay per view) services, and to advertise its broadcast. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) hired former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Bossie denies that he chose Olson because of their shared loathing of the Clintons—they worked together to foment the “Arkansas Project,” a Clinton smear effort that resulted in Congress unsuccessfully impeaching President Clinton—but because Olson gave “us the best chance to win.” Bossie dedicated the Clinton film to Barbara Olson, Olson’s late wife, who died in the 9/11 attacks (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009] “I just don’t see how the Federal Election Commission has the authority to use campaign-finance rules to regulate advertising that is not related to campaigns,” Bossie told reporters last year. [Christian Science Monitor, 2/1/2008]
Uphold or Cut Back McCain-Feingold? - Observers, unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, believe the case gives the Court the opportunity to either uphold or cut back the body of law stemming from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or McCain-Feingold) campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002), which limits the ability of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising before elections. CU is arguing that the BCRA is unconstitutional, having argued before a previous court that the the BCRA law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film. In its brief to the Court, CU denies the film is any sort of “electioneering,” claiming: “Citizens United’s documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect… The government’s position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions—or articulate facts—pertinent to a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.” The Justice Department, siding with the FEC, calls the film an “unmistakable” political appeal, stating, “Every element of the film, including the narration, the visual images and audio track, and the selection of clips, advances the clear message that Senator Clinton lacked both the integrity and the qualifications to be president of the United States.” The film is closer to a political “infomercial” than a legitimate documentary, the Justice Department argues. The film’s “unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton’s character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States,” according to a Justice Department lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, who filed a brief on behalf of the FEC. The Justice Department wants the Court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads, while Olson and CU want the Court to strike down the requirements. Olson says financial backers of films such as H:TM may be reluctant to back a film if their support becomes publicly known. Kneedler, however, writes that such disclosure is in the public interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is joining CU in its court fight, stating in a brief, “By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies.” Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which supports the BCRA, disagrees with RCFP’s stance, saying, “The idea that [the law] threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch.” [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009] The RCFP has said that the movie “does not differ, in any relevant respect, from the critiques of presidential candidates produced throughout the entirety of American history.” And a lawyer with the RCFP, Gregg P. Leslie, asked, “Who is the FEC to decide what is news and what kind of format news is properly presented in?” [New York Times, 3/5/2009]
Filled with False Information - The movie was relentlessly panned by critics, who found much of its “information” either misrepresentative of Clinton or outright false. CU made several other films along with the Clinton documentary, which included attacks on filmmaker Michael Moore, the American Civil Liberties Union, illegal immigrants, and Clinton’s fellow presidential contender Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009]
Arguments Presented - Olson and his opponent, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, present arguments in the case to the assembled Court. Traditionally, lawyers with the Solicitor General (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin later 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 clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and is a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative justice with a penchant for asking tough questions that often hide their true intentions behind carefully neutral wording, is interested in seeing how far he can push Stewart’s argument. Does the BCRA apply only to television commercials, he asks, or might it regulate other means of communication during a federal campaign? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?” Stewart says that the BCRA indeed imposes such restrictions, stating, “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.” Could the government regulate the content of a book? Alito asks. “That’s pretty incredible. You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?” Stewart, who tardily realizes where Alito was going, attempts to recover. “I’m not saying it could be banned,” he responds. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a “swing” justice in some areas but a reliable conservative vote in campaign-spending cases, interrupts Stewart. “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book,” Kennedy says. “Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the 60- and 30-day periods?” Stewart gives what Toobin later calls “a reluctant, qualified yes.” At this point, Roberts speaks up. According to Toobin, Roberts intends to paint Stewart into something of a corner. “If it has one name, one use of the candidate’s name, it would be covered, correct?” Roberts asks. Stewart responds, “That’s correct.” Roberts then asks, “If it’s a 500-page book, and at the end it says, ‘And so vote for X,’ the government could ban that?” Stewart responds, “Well, if it says ‘vote for X,’ it would be express advocacy and it would be covered by the preexisting Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980) provisions.” Toobin later writes that with their “artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts ha[ve] turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship.” Unwittingly, Stewart has argued that the government has the right to censor books because of a single line. Toobin later writes that Stewart is incorrect, that the government could not ban or censor books because of McCain-Feingold. The law applies to television advertisements, and stems from, as Toobin will write, “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Legal scholars and pundits will later argue about Stewart’s answers to the three justices’ questions, but, as Toobin will later write, “the damage to the government’s case had been profound.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Behind the Scenes - Unbeknownst to the lawyers and the media, the Court initially renders a 5-4 verdict in favor of CU, and strikes down decades of campaign finance law, before withdrawing its verdict and agreeing to hear rearguments in the fall (see June 29, 2009). Toobin will write that the entire case is orchestrated behind the scenes, by Roberts and his fellow majority conservatives. Toobin will write of “a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case” that “reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court.” Toobin will write that although the five conservatives are involved in broadening the scope of the case, and Kennedy actually writes the majority decision, “the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.” The initial vote on the case is 5-4, with the five conservative justices—Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—taking the majority.
Expansive Concurrence Becomes the Majority Opinion - At the outset, the case is decided on the basis of Olson’s narrow arguments, regarding the issue of a documentary being made available on demand by a nonprofit organization (CU). Roberts takes the majority opinion onto himself. The four liberals in the minority are confident Roberts’s opinion would be as narrow as Olson’s arguments. Roberts’s draft opinion is indeed that narrow. Kennedy writes a concurrence opining that the Court should go further and overturn McCain-Feingold, the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), and end the ban on corporate donations to campaigns (see 1907). When the draft opinions circulates, the other three conservatives begin rallying towards Kennedy’s more expansive concurrence. Roberts then withdraws his draft and lets Kennedy write the majority opinion in line with his concurrence. Toobin later writes: “The new majority opinion transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law in a case where the lawyer had not even raised those issues. Roberts’s approach to Citizens United conflicted with the position he had taken earlier in the term.” During arguments in a different case, Roberts had “berated at length” a lawyer “for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the petition. Now Roberts was doing nearly the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.”
Dissent - The senior Justice in the minority, John Paul Stevens, initially assigns the main dissent to Justice David Souter. Souter, who is in the process of retiring from the Court, writes a stinging dissent that documents some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the case, including an accusation that Roberts violated the Court’s procedures to get the outcome he wanted. Toobin will call Souter’s planned dissent “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court” that Roberts feels “could damage the Court’s credibility.” Roberts offers a compromise: Souter will withdraw his dissent if the Court schedules a reargument of the case in the fall of 2009 (see June 29, 2009). The second argument would feature different “Questions Presented,” and the stakes of the case would be far clearer. The four minority justices find themselves in something of a conundrum. They feel that to offer the Kennedy opinion as it stands would be to “sandbag” them and the entire case, while a reargument would at least present the issues that the opinion was written to reflect. And there is already a 5-4 majority in favor of Kennedy’s expansive opinion. The liberals, with little hope of actually winning the case, agree to the reargument. The June 29, 2009 announcement will inform the parties that the Court is considering overturning two key decisions regarding campaign finance restrictions, including a decision rendered by the Roberts court (see March 27, 1990 and December 10, 2003) and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Court observers will understand that the Court is not in the habit of publicly asking whether a previous Court decision should be overruled unless a majority is already prepared to do just that. Toobin will call Roberts and his four colleagues “impatient” to make the decision, in part because an early decision would allow the ruling to impact the 2010 midterm elections. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Created to Give Courts Shot at McCain-Feingold - Critics, as yet unaware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, will later say 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 will say: “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.” Bossie himself will later confirm that contention, saying: “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] CU’s original lawyer on the case, James Bopp, will later verify that the case was brought specifically to give the Court a chance to cut back or overturn campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010). The Court will indeed overturn McCain-Feingold in the CU decision (see January 21, 2010).

Entity Tags: Clarence Thomas, US Department of Justice, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Scott Nelson, US Supreme Court, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Citizens United, Barbara Olson, American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Kennedy, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton, Gregg P. Leslie, Nick Nyhart, Edwin Kneedler, David Souter, Federal Election Commission, James Bopp, Jr, John Paul Stevens, David Bossie, John G. Roberts, Jr, Jeffrey Toobin, Malcolm Stewart

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court says it will schedule a hearing on the controversial “Citizens United” case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (see March 15, 2009), for September 2009, in an unusual second presentation before the Court (see September 9, 2009). According to the justices, the lawyers for both Citizens United (CU) and the federal government should argue whether previous Court rulings upholding federal election law should be overturned based on First Amendment grounds. Both sides are asked to argue whether the Court should overrule the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), which upheld restrictions on corporate spending on political campaigns, and/or the 2003 McConnell decision (see December 10, 2003), which upheld the bulk of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). Law professor Nathaniel Persily says of the directive: “The Court is poised to reverse longstanding precedents concerning the rights of corporations to participate in politics. The only reason to ask for reargument on this is if they’re going to overturn Austin and McConnell.” The New York Times observes, “The Roberts court [referring to the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts] has struck down every campaign finance regulation to reach it, and it seems to have a majority prepared to do more.” Previous lower court rulings have found that CU’s attempt to air a film attacking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was an attempt to engage in “electioneering,” and thus came under the restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign law (see March 27, 2002). The film was financed in part by donations from corporations and individuals whom CU has refused to identify. [United Press International, 6/29/2009; New York Times, 6/29/2009] CU previously attempted to have its case heard by the Court, but the Court sent the case back to a federal appeals court, which ruled in favor of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and against CU (see March 24, 2008). Law professor Richard Hasen agrees with Persily and the Times that the decision to reargue the case a second time indicates that the Court’s conservative majority is prepared to overturn both Austin and McConnell, and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Hasen writes that if the Court does indeed rule in favor of unlimited corporate spending, it will be in response to the fundraising advantage currently enjoyed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL) over his Republican counterpart, John McCain (R-AZ). [Slate, 6/29/2009] The decision will indeed overturn both Austin and McConnell, and gut most of the BCRA (see January 21, 2010).

Entity Tags: Hillary Clinton, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Federal Election Commission, US Supreme Court, New York Times, John G. Roberts, Jr, Richard L. Hasen, Nathaniel Persily, John McCain, Citizens United

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

James Bopp Jr.James Bopp Jr. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]A former lawyer for Citizens United (CU), James Bopp Jr., confirms that the organization had a “10-year plan” that culminated in the recent Citizens United ruling that overturned most of US campaign finance law (see January 21, 2010). Bopp has been battling government restrictions on abortion (see November 1980 and After) and campaign finance (see Mid-2004 and After, January 10-16, 2008, and March 24, 2008) for much of his 35-year career. He calls his opponents, including President Obama, “socialists,” and justifies his views by citing the First Amendment. Bopp did not argue the case before the Supreme Court; Citizens United replaced him with what the New York Times calls “a less ideological and more experienced Washington lawyer” (see March 15, 2009). But Bopp is the lawyer who advised CU to use its documentary about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY—see January 10-16, 2008) as a test case to push the limits of corporate spending. He says his strategy continues, with the ultimate goal of deregulating campaign finance completely. “We had a 10-year plan to take all this down,” Bopp says. “And if we do it right, I think we can pretty well dismantle the entire regulatory regime that is called campaign finance law.… We have been awfully successful, and we are not done yet.” Law professor and campaign finance law expert Richard Hasen says the CU case “was really Jim’s brainchild.” Hasen explains: “He has manufactured these cases to present certain questions to the Supreme Court in a certain order and achieve a certain result. He is a litigation machine.” Bopp has other cases on appeal with various courts, all designed to do what the Times says “chip away at some of the disclosure laws left intact by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case.” One of Bopp’s main goals is to end the ban on direct donations by corporations to candidates, a goal law professor Nathaniel Persily says is logical in light of Bopp’s earlier efforts: “If you cannot ban corporate spending on ads, how is it that you are allowed to ban corporate contributions to candidates? That is the next shoe to drop.” He also wants to end all disclosure requirements, explaining, “Groups have to be relieved of reporting their donors if lifting the prohibition on their political speech is going to have any meaning.” Forcing groups who buy political commercials to disclose their donors is nearly as punitive, he says, “as an outright criminal go-to-jail-time prohibition.” Bopp says he harbors no ill will towards CU from replacing him with another lawyer to argue the case before the Court. “I understand that law is art,” he says. “Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo—they are all very different, but all create masterpieces.” [New York Times, 1/25/2010]

Entity Tags: Nathaniel Persily, Barack Obama, Citizens United, New York Times, Hillary Clinton, US Supreme Court, James Bopp, Jr, Richard L. Hasen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The retired director of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, writes a detailed editorial in support of the recent Citizens United ruling that opened the way for corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited money in campaign activities (see January 21, 2010). The ACLU supported the case throughout its progression (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009), and filed briefs in support of the plaintiff, the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. Glasser says that the “screaming dismay” that “most liberals” evinced on hearing of the decision was unwarranted. Corporations are still banned from directly contributing to political campaigns, and President Obama’s assertion that the decision “reversed a century of law” is incorrect; the 1907 Tillman Act that banned corporations from contributing to campaigns or candidates is still in effect (see 1907). Instead, Glasser writes, the decision is “a huge victory… for freedom of speech and against government censorship” (see January 21, 2010, January 22, 2010, and February 2, 2010). Corporations, he writes, have the same right to speech as individuals, and they exercise that speech by spending money promoting issues and candidates, or criticizing those issues and candidates. He cites two instances in which the ACLU was stopped by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from engaging in “political free speech,” one in 1972 when the FEC stopped the ACLU from taking out an ad in the New York Times criticizing President Nixon’s opposition to school busing to implement integration, and in 1984, when the FEC barred the ACLU from making public statements critical of President Reagan. Both instances took place inside the “window” of time before an election (30 days before a primary, 60 days before a general election) in which such utterances were considered supporting a candidate. Nonprofit groups such as Citizens United have been victimized for decades by campaign finance restrictions, Glasser writes. Later in the article, he derides the idea that restricting or controlling speech creates equality between rich and poor in elections, curbing the propensity for the rich to wield more influence and be heard more broadly than less wealthy citizens or organizations. “Money isn’t speech, but how much money one has always determines how much speech one has,” Glasser writes. “Most if not all of you reading this have never had as much speech as, say, the New York Times or George Soros or Nelson Rockefeller or George Bush or, as we recently discovered in my city, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg. The inequities of speech that flow from the inequities of wealth are certainly a big and distorting problem for a democracy, and have always been so, and not just during elections. No one knows how to remedy that, short of fundamental re-distributions of wealth. But I’ll tell you what isn’t a remedy: granting the government the power to decide who should speak, and how much speech is enough. Nothing but disaster flows from that approach, and that was what was at stake in this case.” He concludes by advocating public financing of elections entirely, writing: “Liberals and Democrats have been the chief offenders… favoring equity in the abstract but never seeing how the particular reforms they advocated made the problems they wished to remedy worse, and never seeing that giving the government the authority to regulate speech was not a good thing. Maybe now this result, which has steamed up liberals and Democrats, may at last shift their attention to the kind of public financing that equitably provides money for more speech instead of pretending to create equity by granting the government the authority to restrict speech. We shall see.” [Huffington Post, 2/3/2010]

Entity Tags: Citizens United, American Civil Liberties Union, Federal Election Commission, Barack Obama, Tillman Act, Ira Glasser

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Lawyer James Bopp Jr. forms a super PAC, Republican Super PAC Inc., in order to make unlimited financial contributions towards “independent” expenditures in support of Republican candidates in the November 2012 elections. Bopp is joined by Roger Villere, the chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party. Bopp is known for arguing high-profile cases against abortion rights (see November 1980 and After and Mid-2004 and After) and campaign finance regulations (see December 10, 2003 and Mid-2004 and After). He was the lawyer who first worked with the lobbying and advocacy group Citizens United, whose lawsuit gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to greatly deregulate campaign finance law (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, and January 21, 2010). According to an email from Bopp and Villere, the Republican Super PAC will coordinate with other independent groups “to bridge gaps in the independent campaigns supporting Republican candidates.… The best way to neutralize President Obama’s unprecedented $1 billion political war chest and the political spending by labor unions and wealthy Democrats is to build a super fund-raising infrastructure for independent expenditure spending.” [New York Times, 5/16/2011] The majority of the money raised and spent on behalf of candidates by super PACs has gone to support Republicans, and not President Obama or Democratic candidates (see January 21-22, 2010, March 26, 2010, August 2, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, September 28, 2010, October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, November 1, 2010, (May 4, 2011), and May 5, 2011).

Entity Tags: Roger Villere, James Bopp, Jr, US Supreme Court, Republican Super PAC Inc, Barack Obama

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

Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) writes an article for the Stanford Law Review discussing the dominance of “big money” in the nation’s elections in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), documenting his belief that the rise in small-donor contributions that put Democrats in office in 2006 and 2008 led to the Citizens United backlash, and calling for sweeping campaign finance reform. Feingold writes, “Without a significant change in how our campaign finance system regulates the influence of corporations, the American election process, and even the Supreme Court itself, face a more durable, long-term crisis of legitimacy.” Feingold heads Progressives United, an advocacy group that pushes for the overturning of the Citizens United decision and campaign finance legislation.
Background - Feingold gives the background of campaign finance reform in America: the 1907 Tillman Act which banned corporations from spending their money in elections (see 1907), which he says was spurred by the realization that “corporate influence corrupts elections”; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which extended the Tillman ban to labor unions (see June 23, 1947); and more recent legislation, including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), which Feingold co-authored with Senator John McCain (R-AZ). “And for several election cycles, between 2004 and 2008, our system seemed headed towards more fair and transparent elections,” he writes. “But Citizens United changed everything.” The “road to corruption” in modern elections, he says, began when Democrats in the early 1990s began exploiting a loophole in finance regulation that allowed the creation of “soft money” groups (see January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, and December 10, 2003) that allowed parties to solicit unlimited amounts of donations from corporations, labor unions, and individuals. “This system was corrupting,” Feingold writes. “Senators would solicit gigantic, unregulated contributions from the same corporations that had legislation pending on the Senate floor. Both parties were guilty.” The BCRA plugged the “soft money” loophole. Even as the BCRA began to reform campaign finance practices, Feingold writes, “the same corporate interests that fought McCain-Feingold set to work to dismantle it. In what was clearly an orchestrated effort by opponents of campaign reform (see January 25, 2010), a group called Citizens United produced a movie savaging the record of then-Senator Clinton (see January 10-16, 2008). Ostensibly intended to educate the public about conservative concerns regarding Clinton’s run for the presidency, the film was little more than a legal vehicle to challenge some of the common-sense restrictions enacted by the BCRA (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). Specifically, the creators of the film sought to challenge the BCRA’s requirement that electioneering communications—commonly known as ‘phony issue ads’ that attack a candidate in the days before the election, but don’t explicitly advocate voting for or against that candidate—be subject to the same disclosure requirements and contribution limits as other campaign ads.” The case was argued on narrow grounds about a specific provision of the BCRA, but the Court’s conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, “manipulated the Court’s process to achieve that result” (see May 14, 2012). Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent to the majority opinion, “[F]ive 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.” The ruling, Feingold writes, “created a framework for corruption parallel to ‘soft money.’” Instead of “soft money” organizations, Citizens United led to the creation of the “super PAC” (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, January 4, 2012, January 13, 2012, and February 20, 2012). It has also called into doubt the legitimacy of US elections themselves, due to the “increasing skepticism about the campaign finance system.” Many voters now believe “that the average participant’s small contribution is irrelevant, and that the average person’s vote is grossly outweighed by the gigantic contributions now allowed.”
Internet Politics and Small-Donor Contributions - In part due to the BCRA, Feingold writes, “[f]or three election cycles, in 2004, 2006, and 2008, our system of campaign financing began to take shape in a way that channeled citizen participation and provided incentive for candidates to turn to the democratic support of online activists and small-dollar contributors.” He cites the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean (D-VT), who went on to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as the first powerful instance of “online organizing,” using the Internet to garner millions of dollars in small donations from individual citizens. In 2008, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama (D-IL) pushed the Dean innovation even further. The Obama campaign “raised a historic amount in small-dollar contributions,” Feingold writes, and created an online platform to engage supporters. All told, the Obama campaign raised $500 million online.
An Ineffective FEC - By 2008, he writes, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was completely impotent. The agency “has been fatally flawed since the time of its creation—any administrative law professor will point out that a law enforcement commission with an even number of commissioners [six] is probably designed specifically not to enforce the law at all,” he writes. By 2008, the FEC only had two seated commissioners, and in effect was not enforcing campaign laws whatsoever. Even after eventually receiving a full complement of commissioners, he writes, the agency “remains ineffective, as even Democratic violators go unpunished as conservative commissioners remain unwilling, philosophically, to enforce any campaign finance law.”
2012: Corporations Trump Citizens - In 2012, corporate contributions far outweigh small-dollar donations by individuals. “[T]he most prominent actors in the 2012 election cycle are unnamed corporations and a small group of influential—primarily conservative—billionaires.” Seventy percent of registered voters think super PACs should be illegal, according to polls, and the favorability rating of the Court has dropped a significant amount. Overall, Feingold writes, the public is firmly against the Citizens United paradigm of campaign finance. He advocates strong legislation from Congress, fixing the “broken system of presidential public financing,” and replacing the “dysfunctional” FEC “with a true enforcement agency.” The ultimate repair of campaign finance lies with the Court, he says, noting that the Court has a chance to do some early repair with the Montana case it is now considering (see June 25, 2012). Regardless of what the Court does or does not do in the Montana case, he concludes, “[t]oday’s framework for corruption cannot stand.” [Stanford Law Review, 6/14/2012]

Entity Tags: Howard Dean, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Citizens United, Hillary Clinton, Russell D. Feingold, Federal Election Commission, John McCain, John G. Roberts, Jr, Stanford Law Review, John Paul Stevens

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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