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The anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) issues a series of “voter guides” just before Election Day. The pamphlets are later credited as helping persuade voters to cast their ballots for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (R-CA) and a number of Republican Senate candidates. In 2012, reporter Jeffrey Toobin will characterize them as “barely concealed works of advocacy,” a form of “electioneering” that federal law bans groups such as NRLC from issuing this close to an election. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) later tries to challenge the pamphlet distribution, and the NRLC wins a First Amendment challenge in court under the legal leadership of general counsel James Bopp Jr. As a result of the court case, Bopp becomes interested in challenging campaign finance restrictions (see January 10-16, 2008) as well as abortion rights. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The Supreme Court rules in the case of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. The case addresses limitations on so-called “soft money,” or contributions to a political party not designated specifically for supporting a single candidate, that were imposed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), often known as the McCain-Feingold law after its two Senate sponsors (see March 27, 2002). A three-judge panel has already struck down some of McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on soft-money donations, a ruling that was stayed until the Court could weigh in. Generally, the Court rules that the “soft money” ban does not exceed Congress’s authority to regulate elections, and does not violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause. The ruling is a 5-4 split, with the majority opinion written by liberal Justice John Paul Stevens and his conservative colleague Sandra Day O’Connor. The opinion finds that the “minimal” restrictions on free speech are outweighed by the government’s interest in preventing “both the actual corruption threatened by large financial contributions and… the appearance of corruption” that might result from those contributions. “Money, like water, will always find an outlet,” the justices write, and the government must take steps to prevent corporate donors from finding ways to subvert the contribution limits. The majority is joined by liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, and the four other conservatives on the court—Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—dissent. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003; Oyez (.org) 2011) The case represents the consolidation of 11 separate lawsuits brought by members of Congress, political parties, unions, and advocacy groups; it is named for Senator Mitch McConnell, who sued the FEC on March 27, 2002, the same day the bill was signed into law. Due to the legal controversy expected to be generated by the law and the need to settle it prior to the next federal election, a provision was included in the BCRA that provided for the case to be heard first by a special three-judge panel and then appealed directly to the Supreme Court. This District of Columbia district court panel, comprised of two district court judges and one circuit court judge, was inundated with numerous amicus briefs, almost 1,700 pages of related briefs, and over 100,000 pages of witness testimony. The panel upheld the BCRA’s near-absolute ban on the usage of soft money in federal elections, and the Supreme Court agrees with that finding. However, the Court reverses some of the BCRA’s limitations on the usage of soft money for “generic party activities” such as voter registration and voter identification. The district court overturned the BCRA’s primary definition of “noncandidate expenditures,” but upheld the “backup” definition as provided by the law. Both courts allow the restrictions on corporate and union donations to stand, as well as the exception for nonprofit corporations. The Court upholds much of the BCRA’s provisions on disclosure and coordinated expenditures. The lower court rejected the so-called “millionaire provisions,” a rejection the Supreme Court upholds. A provision banning contributions by minors was overturned by the lower court, and the Court concurs. The lower court found the provision requiring broadcasters to collect and disclose records of broadcast time purchased for political activities unconstitutional, but the Court disagrees and reinstates the requirement. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003) McConnell had asked lawyer James Bopp Jr., a veteran of anti-campaign finance lawsuits and the head of McConnell’s James Madison Center for Free Speech, to take part in the legal efforts of the McConnell case. However, before the case appeared before the Supreme Court, McConnell dropped Bopp from the legal team due to a dispute over tactics. (Kirkpatrick 1/25/2010) The 2010 Citizens United decision will partially overturn McConnell (see January 21, 2010).
After the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), also known as the McCain-Feingold law after its original sponsors, and the 2003 McConnell Supreme Court decision that upheld the law (see December 10, 2003), corporations and labor unions are prohibited from airing ads that attack candidates but avoid specific language that turns the ads from general commercials into “campaign” ads within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a federal election. Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) comes to anti-abortion and anti-campaign finance lawyer James Bopp Jr. (see November 1980 and After) with a dilemma. The WRTL wants to run ads attacking Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), a powerful advocate of abortion rights, for his record of opposing President Bush’s judicial nominees. It intends to use the ads as campaign attack ads against Feingold, but skirt the BCRA’s restrictions by not specifically discouraging votes for him, thereby giving the appearance of “issue” ads and thusly not running afoul of the BCRA. Bopp is worried that the McConnell decision, just rendered, would make the Court reluctant to reverse itself so quickly. Bopp knows that the McConnell decision was in response to a broad challenge to the BCRA that argued the law was unconstitutional in all circumstances. Bopp decides to challenge the BCRA on behalf of the WRTL on narrower grounds—to argue that the specific application of the BCRA in this instance would violate the group’s First Amendment rights. He decides not to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) because of that agency’s notoriously slow response time, but instead files a preemptive challenge in court objecting to the BCRA’s ban on “issue advertisements” in the weeks before elections. Bopp is encouraged by the prospects of a court challenge that may wend its way to the Supreme Court, as the “swing” vote in McConnell was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been succeeded by the more conservative Samuel Alito (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006). (Toobin 5/21/2012) Bopp will prove to be correct, as the Supreme Court will find in WRTL’s favor (see June 25, 2007).
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. (Barnes 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) (Toobin 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.” (Liptak 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; Toobin 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. (Liptak 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.) (Mencimer 1/13/2008; United States District Court for the District Of Columbia 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen 1/15/2008; Toobin 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; Toobin 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).
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. (Richey 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).
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). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 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. (Richey 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.” (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 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?” (Liptak 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). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 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.” (Toobin 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. (Toobin 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.” (Rucker 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).
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.” (Kirkpatrick 1/25/2010)
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.” (Willis 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).
The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issues a pair of rulings in two related cases that affirm campaign finance disclosure provisions in Maine and Rhode Island. Both cases were brought by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a conservative group that opposes, among other things, state and federal laws granting gays and lesbians the right to marry. The Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010) allows for unlimited donations from corporations and labor unions, but also upholds disclosure laws that can be “justified based on a governmental interest in ‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.” NOM’s pair of lawsuits challenged those areas of campaign finance laws in the two states, asking that NOM’s donors be allowed to remain secret. The court denies the lawsuits, writing in part: “In an age characterized by the rapid multiplication of media outlets and the rise of internet reporting, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ has become flooded with a profusion of information and political messages. Citizens rely ever more on a message’s source as a proxy for reliability and a barometer of political spin. Disclosing the identity and constituency of a speaker engaged in political speech thus ‘enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.‘… Additionally, in the case of corporate or organizational speakers, disclosure allows shareholders and members to ‘hold them accountable for their positions.‘… In short, ‘the First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to that speech in a proper way.’” Unless the appellate court’s decisions are overturned, the two states’ campaign disclosure statutes will remain in effect. NOM attorney James Bopp used a number of arguments in court that legal analyst Ian Millhiser will characterize as “paranoid fantasies regarding the impact of disclosure laws,” such as the need for anti-gay groups to keep their donors secret to protect those donors from harassment and threats. Industry groups have argued that government officials intend to use disclosure laws to reward their political allies. Millhiser will observe sardonically, “Because there is nothing dirtier than requiring wealthy individuals and corporations to come out from the shadows and reveal which elections they want to buy.” Similar lawsuits against campaign disclosure laws in Florida and New York, which Millhiser will say are the product of a “coordinated campaign” against disclosure, are pending. A lower court dismissed the New York case, and that decision is in the process of being appealed. (NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR MARRIAGE et al v. WALTER F. MCKEE et al 8/11/2011; NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR MARRIAGE v. JOHN DALUZ 8/11/2011; Danetz 8/16/2011; Millhiser 8/17/2011) Shortly after the Citizens United ruling, Bopp confirmed that this case, like the Citizens United case and others (see Mid-2004 and After), is part of a long-term strategy to completely dismantle campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010).
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 ; Murphy 1/4/2012; Vicini 6/25/2012; Randall 6/25/2012; Weiner 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.” (Murphy 1/4/2012; Sacks 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. (Sacks 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. (Vicini 6/25/2012; Randall 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)
The Republican National Committee (RNC) files a court brief calling the federal ban on direct corporate donations to candidates unconstitutional, and demanding it be overturned. Such direct donations are one of the few restrictions remaining on wealthy candidates wishing to influence elections after the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). The brief is in essence an appeal of a 2011 decision refusing to allow such direct donations (see May 26, 2011 and After). The RNC case echoes a request from Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) that he be allowed to form and direct his own super PAC (see November 23, 2011), and recent remarks by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) calling for donors to be allowed to contribute unlimited amounts to candidates (see December 21, 2011). The RNC brief claims: “Most corporations are not large entities waiting to flood the political system with contributions to curry influence. Most corporations are small businesses. As the Court noted in Citizens United, ‘more than 75 percent of corporations whose income is taxed under federal law have less than $1 million in receipts per year,’ while ‘96 percent of the 3 million businesses that belong to the US Chamber of Commerce have fewer than 100 employees.’ While the concept of corporate contributions evokes images of organizations like Exxon or Halliburton, with large numbers of shareholders and large corporate treasuries, the reality is that most corporations in the United States are small businesses more akin to a neighborhood store. Yet § 441b does not distinguish between these different types of entities; under § 441b, a corporation is a corporation. As such, it is over-inclusive.” Think Progress legal analyst Ian Millhiser says the RNC is attempting to refocus the discussion about corporate contributions onto “mom and pop stores” and away from large, wealthy corporations willing to donate millions to candidates’ campaigns. If the court finds in favor of the RNC, Millhiser writes: “it will effectively destroy any limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals or corporation[s] can give to candidates. In most states, all that is necessary to form a new corporation is to file the right paperwork in the appropriate government office. Moreover, nothing prevents one corporation from owning another corporation. For this reason, a Wall Street tycoon who wanted to give as much as a billion dollars to fund a campaign could do so simply by creating a series of shell corporations that exist for the sole purpose of evading the ban on massive dollar donations to candidates” (see October 30, 2011). (United States of America v. Danielcytk and Biagi 1/10/2012 ; Millhiser 1/11/2012) The RNC made a similar attempt in 2010, in the aftermath of Citizens United; the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of its rejection. (Liptak 5/3/2010; Tom Goldstein 5/14/2012) Over 100 years of US jurisprudence and legislation has consistently barred corporations from making such unlimited donations (see 1883, 1896, December 5, 1905, 1907, June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, March 11, 1957, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003). Shortly after the Citizens United ruling, RNC lawyer James Bopp Jr. confirmed that this case, like the Citizens United case and others (see Mid-2004 and After), was part of a long-term strategy to completely dismantle campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010).
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. (Coyle 2/10/2012; Denniston 2/17/2012; US Supreme Court 2/17/2012 ) The US Supreme Court will strike down the Montana ruling (see June 25, 2012).
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