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Fourth Anniversary of Citizens United Supreme Court Decision: When PACs Took Over Politics

As the 4th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling on Citizens United vs. FEC approaches, several organizations are advocating for a constitutional ammendment to restore- or even extend- limits on corporate contributions that influence elections.


(update of a Jan 2013 post)



On January 21, 2010 the Supreme Court issued its decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, making political spending a form of protected speech.  The decision reversed a 2008 ruling by the District Court for the District of Columbia, which found Citizens United– a nonprofit group affiliated with conservative causes– to be in violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as the McCain–Feingold Act) for airing on television a political documentary critical of Hillary Clinton within 30 days of a primary election.   The Supreme Court overturned this ruling in a 5–4 decision, where the Majority held that:

"Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads."


The decision's immediate impact was to strike down the McCain-Feingold Act, the law that had banned the broadcast of "electioneering communications" paid for by corporations in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general election. It did not alter limits placed on corporate and union campaign contributions, but it did overturn parts of prior Supreme Court rulings that allowed for the regulation of independent corporate spending.  


Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the four who argued against the decision.  Among many arguments in his 90-page dissent were that: (1) corporations could threaten elected officials with negative advertising to gain unprecedented leverage, (2) the public's faith in the electoral process is adversely affected by corporate independent expenditures, (3) qualities unique to corporations give them an unfair advantage in the political process, and (4)  corporations can raise vast sums of money that few individuals can match, unfairly influencing elections.


In his January 2010 State of the Union Address President Barack Obama expressed his concern about the Supreme Court decision, warning that "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."  The President then urged Republicans and Democrats to pass a bill that "corrects some of these problems."   


The longer-term effect of the ruling was the creation of 'super PACs'– independent groups that can take in unlimited donations from wealthy individuals to advocate for or against a candidate.  Super Pacs were the driving force behind a 2012 election season that saw more negative TV campaign ads than any election in history.  The consumer watchdog group Public Citizen reported that 85 percent of unregulated independent expenditures made by the 15 biggest outside groups in the 2012 election cycle financed negative messages.     In disclosing the spending of Political Action Committees during the 2012 presidential primaries and election, the New York Times found that the overwhelming majority of funds raised by the top PACs were used for televised political attack ads.


Since the ruling many organizations, including Public Citizen, Common CauseFree Speech is for PeopleDemocracy, the Move To Amend coalition, and others have supported the President and members of Congress in their effort to pass a Constitutional Ammendment to overturn the Citizens United decision.    


In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that the Citizens United ruling supercedes state laws restricting independent political expenditures in campaigns, and in response sixteen states have passed some kind of resolution in support for an ammendment overturning Citizens United, including California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massacusetts, and Montana, and many others.  Resolutions are pending in a further 21 states, most of them urging Congress and the President to work to amend the Constitution to prohibit corporations (and some states add unions and other organizations) from making unlimited independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates for public office.


In 2011, activist for sustainability Annie Leanord together with Free Range Studies produced this video about the Citizens United ruling, which has reached over 500,000 views:


Another case potentially as damaging to the federal electoral system as Citizens United is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), which was heard by the Supreme Court in October of 2013.   The Court is being asked to decide whether donors, such as GOP activist Shaun McCutcheon, should be able to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates, parties, and political organizations above current limits set by federal law in 1974.    If the court decides in favor of McCutcheon, a single person contributing massive amounts of money could gain even greater influence over candidates for office.  


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