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Context of 'May 30, 2012: Retired Supreme Court Justice Says Corporations Should Have No More Right to Vote than Foreign Citizens'

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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

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito listens to President Obama’s State of the Union address.Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito listens to President Obama’s State of the Union address. [Source: Renovo Media]President Obama sharply criticizes the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, giving corporations and unions the right to give unlimited and anonymous donations to organizations supporting or opposing political candidates (see January 21, 2010), during the annual State of the Union address. Obama gives the address to a joint session of Congress, with three Supreme Court members in attendance. “With all due deference to the separation of powers,” Obama says, “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. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.” Democrats in the chamber applaud Obama’s remarks, while Republicans do not. In his response, Justice Samuel Alito, one of the five conservatives on the Court who joined in the majority decision, shakes his head and mouths, “Not true, not true” (some lip readers will later claim that Alito says, “That’s not true”). It is highly unusual for a president to so directly criticize a Supreme Court ruling, especially in a State of the Union address. The next day, Vice President Joe Biden defends Obama’s remarks in an appearance on Good Morning America. Biden says: “The president didn’t question the integrity of the court. He questioned the judgment of it. I think [the ruling] was dead wrong and we have to correct it.” Supreme Court expert Lucas A. Powe says, “I can’t ever recall a president taking a swipe at the Supreme Court like that.” Experts say that the closest precedent they can find is President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 criticism of the Court in his address to Congress. Yale law professor Jack Balkin says, “The important thing to me is that the president thinks the Citizens United decision is important enough that he would include it.” Reactions are split along ideological lines. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) calls Obama “rude” to criticize the Court’s verdict. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) calls Alito’s reaction “inappropriate.” Legal expert Barbara A. Perry of Sweet Briar College says both Obama and Alito were in the wrong, calling the interaction “an unfortunate display for both branches.” White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton says: “One of the great things about our democracy is that powerful members of the government at high levels can disagree in public and in private. This is one of those cases.” Alito refuses to comment. Alito and Obama have a contentious history. As a senator, Obama was one of the most outspoken voices against Alito’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006), saying then of Alito, “[W]hen you look at his record—when it comes to his understanding of the Constitution, I have found that in almost every case, he consistently sides on behalf of the powerful against the powerless; on behalf of a strong government or corporation against upholding American’s individual rights.” For his part, Alito snubbed the formal visit paid by Obama and Biden to the Court. [New York Daily News, 1/28/2010; Washington Post, 1/28/2010] Months later, Obama’s warning will be proven to be correct, as a media investigation will show the US Chamber of Commerce using foreign monies to fund attack ads and other political activities under the cloak of the Citizens United decision (see October 2010).

Entity Tags: Jack Balkin, Barbara A. Perry, Barack Obama, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, US Congress, US Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, Orrin Hatch, Lucas A. (“Scot”) Powe, Joseph Biden, US Chamber of Commerce, Russell D. Feingold, Bill Burton

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

US-Bahrain Business Council logo.US-Bahrain Business Council logo. [Source: US-Bahrain Business Council]The US Chamber of Commerce (USCC), in a methodology made legal by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010), uses foreign-generated funds to disseminate “attack ads” against Democrats running for office in the November midterm elections. The USCC has targeted, among others, Jack Conway (D-KY), Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Governor Jerry Brown (G-CA), and Representatives Joe Sestak (D-PA) and Tom Perriello (D-VA). The USCC, a private trade association organized as a 501(c)(6) that can raise and spend unlimited funds without disclosing any of its donors, has promised to spend $75 million to prevent Democrats from winning in the upcoming elections. The USCC has, as of September 15, aired over 8,000 television ads supporting Republican candidates and attacking Democrats, according to information from the Wesleyan Media Project. The USCC has far outspent any other public or private group, including political parties. The funds for the USCC’s efforts come from its general account, which solicits foreign funding. Legal experts say that the USCC is likely skirting campaign finance law that prohibits monies from foreign corporations being spent in American elections. The USCC has been very active in recent years in raising funds from overseas sources, with such funds either going directly to the USCC or being funneled to the USCC through its foreign chapters, known as Business Councils or “AmChams.” Some of the largest donations come from the oil-rich country of Bahrain, generated by the USCC’s internal fundraising department in that nation called the “US-Bahrain Business Council” (USBBC). The USBBC is an office of the USCC and not a separate entity. The USBBC raises well over $100,000 a year from foreign businesses, funds shuttled directly to the USCC. A similar operation exists in India through the auspices of the USCC’s US-India Business Council (USIBC). The USIBC raises well over $200,000 a year for the USCC. Other such organizations exist in Egypt, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and other countries, with those nations’ laws making it difficult or impossible for the public to learn how much money is being raised and by which foreign entities. Multinational firms such as BP, Shell Oil, and Siemens are also active members of the USCC, and contribute heavily to the organization. If those firms’ monies are going to fund political activities, the Citizens United decision makes it legal to keep that fact, and the amount of money being used to fund those political activities, entirely secret. It is known that the health insurer Aetna secretly donated $20 million to the USCC to try to defeat the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last year, and News Corporation, the parent of Fox News, donated $1 million to the USCC to use in political activities (see September 30, 2010). The USCC is a strong opponent of Democrats’ efforts to persuade American businesses to hire locally rather than outsourcing jobs to countries such as China and India, and has fought Democrats who oppose free trade deals that would significantly benefit foreign entities. The USCC claims that it “has a system in place” to prevent foreign funding for its “political activities,” but refuses to give any details. [Think Progress, 10/5/2010]

Entity Tags: Joe Sestak, British Petroleum, Barbara Boxer, Aetna, Jack Conway, US-India Business Council, Wesleyan Media Project, US Chamber of Commerce, News Corporation, Royal Dutch/Shell, US-Bahrain Business Council, Siemens, Thomas Perriello, Edmund Gerald (“Jerry”) Brown, Jr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A three-judge district court in Washington, DC, denies a lawsuit, Bluman v. Federal Election Commission, filed by two foreign citizens asking that they be allowed to contribute money to US political campaigns (see March 2011). Two of the judges, Brett Kavanaugh and Rosemary Collyer, were both appointed to the bench by the Bush administration. The court finds: “[I]t is undisputed that the government may bar foreign citizens from voting and serving as elected officers. It follows that the government may bar foreign citizens (at least those who are not lawful permanent residents of the United States) from participating in the campaign process that seeks to influence how voters will cast their ballots in the elections. Those limitations on the activities of foreign citizens are of a piece and are all ‘part of the sovereign’s obligation to preserve the basic conception of a political community.’” Kavanaugh’s concurrence even cites, briefly, foreign law: “It bears mentioning, moreover, that plaintiffs’ home countries—Israel and Canada—and many other democratic countries impose similar restraints on political spending by foreign citizens. See, e.g., Canada Elections Act [and] Knesset Election Law.” The plaintiffs, identified as Benjamin Bluman and Asenath Steiman, had argued that the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) opened the door for foreign involvement in US elections. The case can be appealed to the Supreme Court. [Memorandum Opinion, 8/8/2011; Think Progress, 8/8/2011; New York Times, 1/5/2012] The Supreme Court will deny the Bluman appeal (see January 9, 2012).

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Rosemary Collyer, Brett Kavanaugh, Asenath Steiman, Federal Election Commission, Benjamin Bluman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Montana Supreme Court rules 5-2 in the case of Western Tradition Partnership v. Bullock that a century-old law prohibits corporate spending in state and federal elections conducted within the state. The ruling seems to challenge the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010). The case stems from a challenge by a “social welfare organization,” Western Tradition Partnership (WTP, which changed its name to American Tradition Partnership after the original lawsuit was filed), joined by two other corporate entities, to Montana’s 1912 Corrupt Practices Act (CPA). The law banned corporate spending in elections, after two out-of-state copper industry magnates attempted to “buy” the Montana legislature by pouring money into the 1894 state elections. The law declares that “corporations may not make… an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party.” The Montana Supreme Court finds that the CPA is needed to ensure the integrity of Montana’s elections, and to make sure that citizens and not corporations are running the state. However, the Court acknowledges that its ruling conflicts with the Citizens United decision, though it says that the Citizens United decision allows for restrictions on corporate political speech if the government can demonstrate that the restrictions are as minimal as possible to achieve a compelling governmental interest. The Montana Court rules that because of Montana’s history of corporate vote-buying and the narrow restrictions of the CPA, the law should stand. It also notes that Western Tradition Partnership argued in its original suit that disclosure laws, as opposed to outright bans, would serve the public interest and guard against corruption; however, the organization is currently involved in another lawsuit in which it argues that those same disclosure laws are unconstitutional restrictions of the freedom of speech. [Western Tradition Partnership v. Bullock et al, 12/30/2011 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 1/4/2012; Reuters, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 6/25/2012; Washington Post, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 7/10/2012] Even one of the dissenters, Justice James C. Nelson, disagrees with the Citizens United characterizations that corporations are legally people, writing: “Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government. Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency, and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.” WTP’s director Donald Ferguson says after the decision that the case hinges on freedom of speech (see January 21, 2010): “The current state law says that if you own a business and you would like to use the resources of the business to speak out about how you see the law, you essentially have to ask prior permission from the state. Under the current regime, the state regulatory agencies and the newspapers basically have a monopoly on information. We’re simply trying to put more free speech in motion.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/4/2012; Huffington Post, 1/4/2012]
Legal Scholars Anticipate Montana Ruling to be Overturned - Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center calls the Montana high court’s ruling “an antidote to the crabbed view of corruption” displayed in Citizens United. Ryan, like many others, anticipates the US Supreme Court will overturn today’s ruling. [Huffington Post, 1/4/2012] One of those others is law professor Richard Hasen, who writes: “[I]f the Court were being honest in Citizens United, it would have said something like: ‘We don’t care whether or not independent spending can or cannot corrupt; the First Amendment trumps this risk of corruption.’ But the Court didn’t say that, because it would have faced even greater criticism than it already has. So it dressed up its value judgment (no corruption ‘implied in law’) as a factual statement. The Montana Supreme Court called SCOTUS [the US Supreme Court] on this. And when SCOTUS reverses, the disingenuousness of this aspect of CU will be on full display for all.” Hasen is referring to the Court’s finding in Citizens United that independent spending in elections does not legally imply corruption. [Rick Hasen, 1/1/2012]
Appeal to Supreme Court - Attorneys for WTP and the other corporate plaintiffs will appeal to the US Supreme Court on the grounds that Montana is bound by the Citizens United decision and that the decision applies to state as well as federal elections. Attorney James Bopp, in filing the appeal, will say: “If Montana can ban core political speech because of Montana’s unique characteristics, free speech will be seriously harmed. Speakers will be silenced because of corruption by others over a century ago.” The US Supreme Court will quickly issue a stay of that decision. [Reuters, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 6/25/2012] When the case reaches the US Supreme Court, the name of the plaintiff will change into “American Tradition Partnership,” and the Court’s documentation will reflect that change. The Court will overrule the Montana decision (see June 25, 2012). After the decision, American Tradition Partnership’s Web site will disappear, but the liberal accountability organization SourceWatch will describe the organization’s parent, the American Tradition Institute, as described in the group’s mission statement: “a public policy research and educational foundation… founded in 2009 to help lead the national discussion about environmental issues, including air and water quality and regulation, responsible land use, natural resource management, energy development, property rights, and free-market principles of stewardship.” ATI and its affiliates are pro-development and against expanded environmental regulation, according to SourceWatch’s documentation, made up of “a broader network of groups with close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas regulation.” [SourceWatch, 2012]

Entity Tags: American Tradition Institute, American Tradition Partnership, Donald Ferguson, James C. Nelson, 1912 Corrupt Practices Act (Montana), SourceWatch, US Supreme Court, Paul S. Ryan, Montana Supreme Court, James Bopp, Jr, Richard L. Hasen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Dahlia Lithwick, the senior legal correspondent for Slate, muses on the likelihood that the US Supreme Court will overturn a recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court that upheld the state’s limits on corporate election spending (see December 30, 2011 and After). The Montana high court’s opinion directly contradicts the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). Lithwick notes that some Republican primary candidates are learning to their sorrow just how effective corporate spending can be when it is turned against them, citing Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who was targeted by almost $5 million of super PAC spending on negative ads against him in the recent Iowa caucuses (see January 3, 2012). Much of that came from a super PAC supporting Gingrich’s rival Mitt Romney (R-MA). Lithwick also cites a recent column by liberal columnist Ruth Marcus “explaining all the ways in which the super PACs are both coordinating with campaigns and evading federal disclosure requirements” (see January 3, 2012). Marcus wrote that the Citizens United decision set the stage for just the kind of negative, coordinated attacks seen in Iowa, and allowed the political system to be overwhelmed by corporate-funded entities that are not publicly accountable (see January 4, 2012). The probability for historic levels of corruption was overwhelming, Lithwick writes, and entirely foreseeable (see October 17, 2011). Lithwick notes conservative legal scholar Eugene Volokh as saying the Montana high court’s decision “practically begs to be overturned at the Supreme Court.” But the Montana high court, citing specific evidence showing the potential for corruption in the plaintiff’s actions (including a fundraising brochure that promised donors “no politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you made” any donations), found that the limits on corporate electoral spending are necessary to keep corruption at bay. Lithwick concludes, “I think what we just saw in Iowa and Montana proves again that corporations aren’t really people, money isn’t really speech, and that saying so isn’t just a way of speaking truth to power.” [Slate, 1/4/2012]

Entity Tags: Montana Supreme Court, Dahlia Lithwick, Eugene Volokh, Ruth Marcus, US Supreme Court, Willard Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The decision of the Montana Supreme Court to uphold Montana’s ban on corporate donations to political campaigns (see December 30, 2011 and After), which directly contradicts the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), is being appealed to the US Supreme Court. The plaintiffs, American Tradition Partnership (ATP) and the other two corporate entities that joined ATP in the original lawsuit, ask Justice Anthony Kennedy to issue a stay on the Montana high court verdict while the Supreme Court considers the appeal. In their application for a stay, the plaintiffs write: “The Montana Supreme Court held the ban constitutional despite the holding in [the Citizens United decision] that ‘[n]o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.’ Immediate relief is needed to prevent irreparable harm to the corporations’ First Amendment free-speech right. Montana’s primary elections are on June 5, making it vital that planning begin now for independent expenditures before the election.” The application also asks Kennedy to refer the matter to the Court, have it treated as a petition for review, and then summarily reverse the Montana Supreme Court. James Bopp, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, writes, “The lower court’s refusal to follow Citizens United is such an obvious, blatant disregard of its duty to follow this Court’s decisions that summary reversal is proper.” In a statement, Bopp adds: “Unequivocally, Citizens United means that corporate independent expenditure bans are invalid under the United States Constitution. The Montana Supreme Court has shirked its responsibility to follow that decisions and the United States Supreme Court should reverse their ruling.” The other two parties involved as plaintiffs are the Montana Shooting Sports Association and Champion Painting Inc. At least five justices vote to issue the stay, though an official decision to accept the case on appeal is still pending, and the Court has not spoken on the subject of summary reversal. Two justices who dissented from the Citizens United case, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, agree that the Montana Supreme Court’s decision should be reviewed, but in a statement attached to the stay order, add: “Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’ A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway. Because lower courts are bound to follow this Court’s decisions until they are withdrawn or modified, however, I vote to grant the stay.” The stay allows Montana corporations to donate without restriction to super PACs operated on behalf of electoral candidates. [Legal Times, 2/10/2012; SCOTUSBlog, 2/17/2012; US Supreme Court, 2/17/2012 pdf file] The US Supreme Court will strike down the Montana ruling (see June 25, 2012).

Entity Tags: Montana Shooting Sports Association, American Tradition Partnership, Anthony Kennedy, James Bopp, Jr, Stephen Breyer, Champion Painting Inc., Montana Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the US Chamber of Commerce file amicus curiae briefs with the US Supreme Court urging it to reverse the Montana Supreme Court’s support for Montana’s ban on corporate financing of political campaigns (see December 30, 2011 and After). The conservative lobbying and advocacy group Citizens United (CU) has already filed such a brief. Former officials of the ACLU, along with advocacy groups such as Free Speech for People, have filed an amicus brief asking the Court to review the decision. Many observers have predicted the Court will overturn the Montana high court’s ruling (see January 4, 2012) because it seems to conflict with the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010), but a summary reversal—in essence, a decision without allowing the two sides to present arguments—would be somewhat unusual. Four justices are required to accept the case for review, while five must vote for summary judgment. The Court issued a stay on the Montana court’s decision soon after its issuance (see February 10-17, 2012). The case is American Tradition Partnership, et al., v. Bullock. CU lawyers have asked the Court to protect the ruling it issued in the case bearing its name, accusing the Montana court of “constitutional mischief” and advising the Court to “reaffirm its position as the final arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning” by summarily reversing the Montana court’s decision. On the other side, the ACLU officials and other briefs have urged the Court to review its Citizens United decision, saying the ruling is “in serious doubt” because of “massive” spending in the 2012 federal campaigns “by corporations and wealthy elites.” The Free Speech for People brief focuses on the issue of spending by “independent” outside groups and individuals since the Citizens United decision (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), May 5, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, October 30, 2011, December 1, 2011, December 19, 2011, January 3, 2012, January 6, 2012, January 10, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, and March 26, 2012), and says the massive spending undercuts the rationale for the decision: “In view of the increasingly dominant role of corporate and private independent expenditures in our electoral politics, this Court should grant certiorari and reexamine whether its long-standing precedent permitting regulations designed to prevent the use of wealth from drowning out other voices provides an additional basis for upholding restrictions on independent expenditures.” The Free Speech for People brief also argues that the Court should use the American Tradition Partnership case to rule that corporations are not entitled to the protections of the First Amendment free speech clause or other provisions in the Bill of Rights. CU lawyers have argued that the Citizens United decision is not the issue, but the Montana high court’s decision to uphold its state ban on unlimited corporate spending because of what the CU brief calls “Montana’s supposedly unique history, geography, politics, and economy.” The CU brief continued, “The Montana Supreme Court’s state-specific analysis makes this case an exceedingly poor vehicle to reexamine the broader constitutional questions settled in Citizens United.” The US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United should bind Montana as well as the other 49 states, the CU brief argued, saying that “state courts—like federal courts—have an unwavering obligation to uphold the Constitution of the United States and follow this Court’s decisions until they are withdrawn or modified.… They are not freed from that constitutional obligation where the decision of this Court is controversial or unpopular, where it was rendered by a divided Court, or where state officials disagree with the decisions as a matter of policy.” Instead, the brief claimed, Montana’s high court has promulgated “a transparent attempt to circumvent the application of this Court’s precedent to a state statute that is materially indistinguishable from the federal prohibition on corporate independent expenditures struck down by this Court in Citizens United. Such constitutional mischief should proceed no further.” The liberal news Web site Think Progress notes that Senator McConnell, who files a brief urging summary reversal today, has argued against campaign finance reform for a decade, and was one of the plaintiffs in an unsuccessful 2002 lawsuit attempting to reverse a legislative ban on corporate donations (see December 10, 2003). And, it notes, the US Chamber of Commerce is one of the biggest donors in the 2012 elections. [Lyle Denniston, 5/1/2012; Think Progress, 5/2/2012] The Supreme Court will indeed overrule the Montana high court’s decision (see June 25, 2012).

Entity Tags: US Chamber of Commerce, Citizens United, Free Speech for People, Mitch McConnell, US Supreme Court, Montana Supreme Court, Think Progress (.org)

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

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens lambasts the Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), in which he strongly dissented (see May 14, 2012). Stevens has criticized the decision in earlier statements. He continues that trend in a speech given to the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. He agrees with President Obama’s warning that “foreign entities” could bankroll US elections (see January 27-29, 2010 and October 2010), and challenges the Court to prove that such concerns are “not true,” as Justice Samuel Alito famously mouthed during Obama’s speech at the time by reconciling the Court’s finding that the First Amendment “generally prohibits the suppression of political speech based on the speaker’s identity” with its subsequent decision to uphold a ban on campaign spending by non-citizens in Bluman v. Federal Election Commission (see August 8, 2011). Alito’s reaction to Obama’s warning “persuade[s] me that that in due course it will be necessary for the Court to issue an opinion explicitly crafting an exception that will create a crack in the foundation of the Citizens United majority opinion,” Stevens says. In doing so, “it will be necessary to explain why the First Amendment provides greater protection to the campaign speech of some non-voters than to that of other non-voters.” Stevens is referring to corporations and labor unions as “non-voters,” as is the Canadian citizen who filed the Bluman lawsuit. The Bluman case, Stevens says, “unquestionably provided the Court with an appropriate opportunity to explain why the president had misinterpreted the Court’s opinion in Citizens United. [T]he Court instead took the surprising action of simply affirming the district court without comment and without dissent.” Stevens says the two cases pose a legal conundrum—“notwithstanding the broad language used by the majority in Citizens United, it is now settled, albeit unexplained, that the identity of some speakers may provide a legally acceptable basis for restricting speech.” At some point, Stevens says, the Court will have to grapple with the effects of the decision. “I think it is likely that when the Court begins to spell out which categories of non-voters should receive the same protections as the not-for-profit Citizens United advocacy group, it will not only exclude terrorist organizations and foreign agents, but also all corporations owned or controlled by non-citizens, and possibly even those in which non-citizens have a substantial interest. Where that line will actually be drawn will depend on an exercise of judgment by the majority of members of the Court, rather than on any proposition of law identified in the Citizens United majority opinion.” Stevens does not explicitly reference the upcoming Court case where it will have to rule on Montana’s ban on corporate spending (see December 30, 2011 and After, January 4, 2012, February 10-17, 2012, and April 30, 2012), but he says the Court was wrong to overturn a precedent that allows states to bar corporate spending from outside their borders. For states such as Montana with those laws in effect, “those corporate non-voters were comparable to the non-voting foreign corporations that concerned President Obama when he criticized the Citizens United majority opinion.” He says, “If the First Amendment does not protect the right of a graduate of Harvard Law School to spend his own money to support the candidate of his choice simply because his Canadian citizenship deprives him of the right to participate in our elections, the fact that corporations may be owned or controlled by Canadians—indeed, in my judgment, the fact that corporations have no right to vote—should give Congress the power to exclude them from direct participation in the electoral process.” [Huffington Post, 5/30/2012; University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, 5/30/2012 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Samuel Alito, Barack Obama, Citizens United, US Supreme Court, Clinton School of Public Service, John Paul Stevens

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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