As predicted, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has been followed by a flood of so-called "independent" spending on political campaigns. Yet also to no one’s great surprise, the nation’s high court this week declined an opportunity to revisit that 5-4 ruling.
By another 5-4 vote, the court summarily reversed a decision of the Montana Supreme Court that did not toe the Citizens United line. In doing so, the majority left no doubt that its 2010 decision applies as well to state and local elections.
In his dissent in American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that "Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so."
Consider the current presidential race alone. Adam Skaggs, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote last month that "super PACs have already dumped more than $110 million into this election (and) non-profit groups that refuse to disclose their donors have spent millions more."
Mr. Skaggs noted that while Citizens United did not address the constitutionality of campaign contribution limits, lower-court interpretations of the decision have opened the floodgates.
It is useful to recall that the law prior to Citizens United did not muzzle corporations or labor unions; rather, it prohibited only the broadcast, cable or satellite transmission of "electioneering communications" underwritten by corporations in periods directly before presidential primaries and general elections. Business owners and corporate executives as individuals enjoyed the same free-speech rights as their fellow citizens.
As Justice John Paul Stevens observed in his scathing Citizens United dissent: "(F)ew outside the majority of this court would have thought (American democracy’s) flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."
Those troubled by the corrupting influence of unlimited independent spending in politics include many businesspeople–a fact underscored by the results of this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll. Unfortunately, it could be a very long time before a Supreme Court majority shares that view.
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