Citizens United v. FEC

  • February 5, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a discussion yesterday prominently highlighted the deleterious consequences of the Court’s Citizens United decision. When asked at a Georgetown Law event which decision in the past 10 years she would most like to overturn, she responded, “I would have to say Citizens United, because I think that our system is being polluted by money.”

    Ginsburg continued, “It gets pretty bad when it affects the judiciary too. In some 39 states, judges are elected at some level, and when it costs millions of dollars to fund a campaign for a state supreme court, something is terribly wrong. I think we are reaching the saturation point.”

    What Ginsburg references is the well-documented flood of money that has saturated both political and state judicial campaigns since the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on corporate campaign contributions five years ago. One result of this monetary deluge has been harsher treatment of criminal defendants by state supreme court justices. (See the recent ACS report “Skewed Justice” for more on this matter.)

    Ginsburg’s comments touched on an additional cost of astronomical campaign spending: its negative effect on the psyche of the American voter. “One of the really shameful things is the low rate of voting in the United States,” she said.  “In many democracies, the turnout is much higher. The people have a sense -- ‘Why bother?’ It’s a foregone conclusion who is going to win.”

    As Ginsburg put it, it’s time that we reestablish “a democracy for all of the people.” Read a transcript or watch video of of the discussion here. See this post for more commentary and analysis of Citizens United.

  • January 21, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Fred Wertheimer, President, Democracy 21. Democracy 21 is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to strengthen democracy, prevent government corruption and empower citizens in the political process.                                                                    

    On January 21, 2010, five Supreme Court justices rejected decades of the Court’s own precedent and a century of national policy aimed at keeping corporate money out of our elections to issue the Citizens United decision.

    In issuing the decision, Chief Justice Roberts and his four colleagues wreaked havoc on our democracy and our constitutional system of representative government.

    Five years later, these five justices have bequeathed the following to the American people:

    • More than $1 billion in unlimited contributions that have flowed into federal elections through Super PACs – including more than $300 million through single-candidate Super PACS used by federal candidates and their supporters to circumvent and eviscerate candidate contribution limits.
    • More than $500 million in secret, unlimited contributions that have flowed into federal elections through tax-exempt 501(c) organizations.

    Citizens United has returned to federal elections massive amounts of the same kinds of money that played a central role in the Watergate corruption scandals – unlimited contributions and secret money.

    In 1976, the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo upheld the constitutionality of contribution limits that were enacted in response to the Watergate scandals.  The Court found that “corruption” is “inherent” in a system of unlimited contributions.  The Court also upheld disclosure on the grounds that “disclosure requirements deter actual corruption.”

    In 2012, more than thirty-five years later, U.S. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner explained the destructive impact of Citizens United.  Judge Posner, widely considered the most influential conservative judge not on the Supreme Court, said in an NPR interview:

    Our political system is pervasively corrupt due to our Supreme Court taking away campaign- contribution restrictions on the basis of the First Amendment.

    The Citizens United decision, written for the majority by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is based on a series of indefensible, if not astonishing, premises.

  • September 19, 2014
    BookTalk
    Buying The Vote
    A History of Campaign Finance Reform
    By: 
    Robert E. Mutch

    by Billy Corriher, Director of Research for Legal Progress, Center for American Progress  

    Early on in Robert Mutch's book, Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform, the identity of the villain is clear. Mutch describes the campaign finance reformers of the early twentieth century as focused on keeping corporations from exerting too much influence on politics and politicians. As large corporations first emerged, the public debated the proper role of these institutions in our democracy. After a series of scandals, early reformers' goals included "keeping corporate money out of elections and preventing the inequality of wealth from undermining political equality among individual citizens."

    Mutch also clearly disagrees with the current U.S. Supreme Court's approach to campaign finance reform. But unlike so much commentary today, Mutch provides rich context for his critique. He begins with early campaign finance scandals and the small triumphs of reformers like Louise Overacker. The early reformers achieved some victories, after the public learned that "the country's major political parties were being financed by" large corporations. New laws led to disclosure of campaign contributors and bans on corporate campaign cash.

    The second wave of reforms came in the wake of Nixon's secret receipt of campaign contributions from corporations. But Mutch notes that, unlike the response to the first wave, opponents rushed to the courts to block the new laws. The definition of democracy as excluding corporations was challenged when "the enforcement provisions of the post-Watergate laws raised the possibility that the....reforms would be more than symbolic."

    In the face of campaign finance reform, environmental regulations, and consumer advocates, big business felt like it was under attack at the time. Justice Lewis Powell, while an attorney for the US Chamber of Commerce, wrote an infamous memo warning that business needed direct political action to counter the "assault on the enterprise system."

  • April 28, 2014

    by Jeremy Leaming

    U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Crotty had no choice – he was bound by recent Supreme Court precedent to strike some New York campaign spending limits. As The New York Times’ David Firestone noted, Judge Crotty’s 5-page opinion and order provided “about as clear-eyed description of the corruption now permeating the political system as anyone has written.”

    Judge Crotty took to task the Supreme Court’s opinions in Citizens United v. FEC and this year’s McCutcheon v. FEC, both of which have only made it easier for the wealthy to control the nation’s elections. (And many have argued that the wealthy have never needed such help. A recent study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page for Princeton found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”)

    In his April 24 opinion and order, Judge Crotty nevertheless had to invalidate some modest limits on spending by independent groups, in this case a group called the New York Progress Protection Pac, which spent heavily in support of Republican Joseph Lhota’s New York City mayoral race. In the process, however, Crotty blasted the Supreme Court’s majority opinions in Citizens United and McCutcheon.

    “In effect” Crotty wrote, “it is only direct bribery – not influence – that the [Supreme] Court views as crossing the line into quid pro quo corruption.” Crotty noted that he believes Justice Stephen Breyer who lodged a dissent in McCutcheon got it right, but that his hands were tied because of the majority opinions in McCutcheon and Citizens United.

    He “who pays the piper calls the tune,” Crotty wrote. “Indeed, today’s reality is that the voices of ‘we the people’ are too often drowned out by the few who have great resources. In today’s never-ending cycle of campaigning and lobbying; lobbying and campaigning, elected officials know where there money is coming from and that it must keep coming if they are to stay in office. Ordinary citizens recognize this; they know what is going on; they know they are not being included. It breeds cynicism and distrust.”

    See Crotty’s full opinion here.

    But beyond evolving Supreme Court precedent that advances interests of the wealthy, Professor Nicholas Carnes writing for TPM Cafe says we also must realize who is crafting policy in Washington -- primarily millionaires.

    “My research suggests,” Carnes writes, “that we have a government for the privileged in the United States in part because we have government by the privileged.” Carnes research shows how rare it is for voters to be able to support candidates from the middle-or-working classes. Typically the voter has a narrow choice, “Do you want to vote for a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire business owner?”

  • October 1, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Patrick Kibbe. Mr. Kibbe is a joint degree candidate in law and public policy at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a member of Harvard’s ACS Student Chapter. This piece is cross-posted at Daily Kos, where it originally appeared.

    Headed to the Supreme Court for oral arguments on October 8 is a case that could be worse for the American public than Citizens United v. FEC, and unleash countless millions of special interest dollars into political campaigns. In this case, McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee v. FEC, Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee have teamed up to try and eliminate the aggregate spending limits for federal elections that are in place.

    Currently under federal law, there are base limits on spending (the amounts that you can give to a particular candidate or committee) and aggregate limits on spending (the amounts that you can contribute across all political candidates and committees). In a carefully orchestrated legal strategy, building off cases like Citizens United and Speechnow.org v. FEC, McCutcheon and the RNC are challenging the aggregate limits, but not the base limits for campaign contributions. In this way, McCutcheon and the RNC are seeking to chip away at federal protections designed to reduce corruption in politics.

    But don't be fooled, McCutcheon and the RNC are trying to chip off a pretty huge chunk.

    McCutcheon's view would blow the lid off the amount of money the super rich could contribute to campaigns and influence politics compared to the average American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median American family makes $52,762 a year. What would be a reasonable limit that any individual, in accordance with a constitution that begins "We the people", could contribute to campaigns to ensure that elected officials represent all people and not only a select few? $10,000? $20,000? $52,762?

    The current aggregate limits are set at $123,200, more than twice what an average American family makes in a year. And these are the limits that McCutcheon and the RNC are challenging. Under their view, any individual could contribute more than fifty times what an average American family makes in a year at $3.63 million.