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In a long-awaited 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court of the United States has overturned its 1990 decision in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce which had allowed states to ban corporations from using treasury money to support or oppose candidates through independent expenditures.  [Bans on direct corporate contributions to candidates were not at issue in this case; you'll have to wait a few years on that one.]

Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in today's case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, with Justice Stevens penning a 90-page dissent on behalf of himself and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  The full decision is here (PDF), my backgrounder is here, and I'll update this post as quickly as I can.

Update I: From the majority opinion:

The law before us is an outright ban, backed by criminal sanctions. Section 441b makes it a felony for all corporations—including nonprofit advocacy corporations—either to expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates or to broadcast electioneering communications within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election. Thus, the following acts would all be felonies under §441b: The Sierra Club runs an ad, within the crucial phase of 60 days before the general election, that exhorts the public to disapprove of a Congressman who favors logging in national forests; the National Rifle Association publishes a book urging the public to vote for the challenger because the incumbent U. S. Senator supports a handgun ban; and the American Civil Liberties Union creates a Web site telling the public to vote for a Presidential candidate in light of that candidate’s defense of free speech. These prohibitions are classic examples of censorship....

Quite apart from the purpose or effect of regulating content, moreover, the Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers. 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.

If elected officials succumb to improper influences from independent expenditures; if they surrender their best judgment; and if they put expediency before principle, then surely there is cause for concern. We must give weight to attempts by Congress to seek to dispel either the appearance or the reality of these influences. The remedies enacted by law, however, must comply with the First Amendment; and, it is our law and our tradition that more speech, not less, is the governing rule. An outright ban on corporate political speech during the critical preelection period is not a permissible remedy. Here Congress has created categorical bans on speech that are asymmetrical to preventing quid pro quo corruption.

We need not reach the question whether the Government has a compelling interest in preventing foreign individuals or associations from influencing our Nation’s political process. Cf. 2 U. S. C. §441e (contribution and expenditure ban applied to "foreign national[s]"). Section 441b is not limited to corporations or associations that were created in foreign countries or funded predominately by foreign shareholders. Section 441b therefore would be overbroad even if we assumed, arguendo, that the Government has a compelling interest in limiting foreign influence over our political process.

When word concerning the plot of the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reached the circles of Government, some officials sought, by persuasion, to discourage its distribution.... Under Austin, though, officials could have done more than discourage its distribution—they could have banned the film. After all, it, like Hillary, was speech funded by a corporation that was critical of Members of Congress. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be fiction and caricature; but fiction and caricature can be a powerful force. Modern day movies, television comedies, or skits on Youtube.com might portray public officials or public policies in unflattering ways. Yet if a covered transmission during the blackout period creates the background for candidate endorsement or opposition, a felony occurs solely because a corporation, other than an exempt media corporation, has made the "purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit, or gift of money or anything of value" in order to engage in political speech. 2 U. S. C. §431(9)(A)(i). Speech would be suppressed in the realm where its necessity is most evident: in the public dialogue preceding a real election. Governments are often hostile to speech, but under our law and our tradition it seems stranger than fiction for our Government to make this political speech a crime. Yet this is the statute’s purpose and design.

Some members of the public might consider Hillary to be insightful and instructive; some might find it to be neither high art nor a fair discussion on how to set the Nation’s course; still others simply might suspend judgment on these points but decide to think more about issues and candidates. Those choices and assessments, however, are not for the Government to make. "The First Amendment underwrites the freedom to experiment and to create in the realm of thought and speech. Citizens must be free to use new forms, and new forums, for the expression of ideas. The civic discourse belongs to the people, and the Government may not prescribe the means used to conduct it."

Update 2: The Chief Justice's concurrence (w/Alito) is focused on why stare decisis wasn't the biggest value here.  Scalia's concurrence (w/Thomas and Alito) focuses on questions of the Framers' vision of the First Amendment, battling with Justice Stevens on that front, and makes a point I've made here myself:

But to return to, and summarize, my principal point, which is the conformity of today’s opinion with the original meaning of the First Amendment. The Amendment is written in terms of "speech," not speakers. Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker, from single individuals to partnerships of individuals, to unincorporated associations of individuals, to incorporated associations of individuals—and the dissent offers no evidence about the original meaning of the text to support any such exclusion. We are therefore simply left with the question whether the speech at issue in this case is "speech" covered by the First Amendment. No one says otherwise. A documentary film critical of a potential Presidential candidate is core political speech, and its nature as such does not change simply because it was funded by a corporation.

update 3:Justice Stevens, dissenting:

The real issue in this case concerns how, not if, the appellant may finance its electioneering. Citizens United is a wealthy nonprofit corporation that runs a political action committee (PAC) with millions of dollars in assets. Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), it could have used those assets to televise and promote Hillary: The Movie wherever and whenever it wanted to. It also could have spent unrestricted sums to broadcast Hillary at any time other than the 30 days before the last primary election. Neither Citizens United’s nor any other corporation’s speech has been "banned," ante, at 1. All that the parties dispute is whether Citizens United had a right to use the funds in its general treasury to pay for broadcasts during the 30-day period. The notion that the First Amendment dictates an affirmative answer to that question is, in my judgment, profoundly misguided. Even more misguided is the notion that the Court must rewrite the law relating to campaign expenditures by for-profit corporations and unions to decide this case....

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

update 3a: More from the dissent:

FN 18: THE CHIEF JUSTICE suggests that Austin has been undermined by subsequent dissenting opinions. Ante, at 9. Under this  view, it appears that the more times the Court stands by a precedent in the face of requests to overrule it, the weaker that precedent becomes. THE CHIEF JUSTICE further suggests that Austin "is uniquely destabilizing because it threatens to subvert our Court’s decisions even outside" its particular facts, as when we applied its reasoning in McConnell. Ante, at 9. Once again, the theory seems to be that the more we utilize a precedent, the more we call it into question. For those who believe Austin was correctly decided—as the Federal Government and the States have long believed, as the majority of Justices to have served on the Court since Austin have believed, and as we continue to believe—there is nothing "destabilizing" about the prospect of its continued application. It is gutting campaign finance laws across the country, as the Court does today, that will be destabilizing.

The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. 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. While individuals might join together to exercise their speech rights, business corporations, at least, were plainly not seen as facilitating such associational or expressive ends. Even "the notion that business corporations could invoke the First Amendment would probably have been quite a novelty,"given that "at the time, the legitimacy of every corporate activity was thought to rest entirely in a concession of the sovereign."

FN54 See Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Tom Logan (Nov. 12, 1816), in 12 The Works of Thomas Jefferson 42, 44 (P. Ford ed. 1905) ("I hope we shall . . . crush in [its] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country").

JUSTICE SCALIA also emphasizes the unqualified natureof the First Amendment text. Yet he would seemingly read out the Free Press Clause: How else could he claim that my purported views on newspapers must track my views on corporations generally? Like virtually all modern lawyers, JUSTICE SCALIA presumably believes that the First Amendment restricts the Executive, even though its language refers to Congress alone. In any event, the text only leads us back to the questions who or what is guaranteed "the freedom of speech," and, just as critically, what that freedom consists of and under what circumstances it may be limited. JUSTICE SCALIA appears to believe that because corporations are created and utilized by individuals, it follows (as night the day) that their electioneering must be equally protected by the First Amendment and equally immunized from expenditure limits. That conclusion certainly does not follow as a logical matter, and JUSTICE SCALIA fails to explain why the original public meaning leads it to follow as a matter of interpretation.

The truth is we cannot be certain how a law such as BCRA §203 meshes with the original meaning of the First Amendment. I have given several reasons why I believethe Constitution would have been understood then, and ought to be understood now, to permit reasonable restrictions on corporate electioneering, and I will give many more reasons in the pages to come.

final update: More from the dissent, and yes I do love Stevens' footnotes today:

FN 64 The majority declares by fiat that the appearance of undue influence by high-spending corporations "will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy."  The electorate itself has consistently indicated otherwise, both in opinion poll ... and in the laws its representatives have passed, and our colleagues have no basis for elevating their own optimism into a tenet of constitutional law.

All of the majority’s theoretical arguments turn on a proposition with undeniable surface appeal but little grounding in evidence or experience, "that there is no such thing as too much speech," Austin, 494 U. S., at 695 (SCALIA, J., dissenting)).74 If individuals in our society had infinite free time to listen to and contemplate every last bit of speech uttered by anyone, anywhere; and if broadcast advertisements had no special ability to influence elections apart from the merits of their arguments (to the extent they make any); and if legislators always operated with nothing less than perfect virtue; then I suppose the majority’s premise would be sound. In the real world, we have seen, corporate domination of the airwaves prior to an election may decrease the average listener’s exposure to relevant viewpoints, and it may diminish citizens’ willingness and capacity to participate in the democratic process.

None of this is to suggest that corporations can orshould be denied an opportunity to participate in election campaigns or in any other public forum (much less that a work of art such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be banned), or to deny that some corporate speech may contribute significantly to public debate. What it shows, however, is that Austin’s "concern about corporate domination of the political process," reflects more than a concern to protect governmental interests outside of the First Amendment. It also reflects a concern to facilitate First Amendment values by preserving some breathing room around the electoral "marketplace" of ideas, the marketplace in which the actual people of this Nation determine how they will govern themselves. The majority seems oblivious to the simple truth that laws such as §203 do not merely pit the anticorruption interest against the First Amendment, but also pit competing First Amendment values against each other. There are, to be sure, serious concerns with any effort to balance the First Amendment rights of speakers against the First Amendment rights of listeners. But when the speakers in question are not real people and when the appeal to "First Amendment principles" depends almost entirely on the listeners’ perspective, it becomes necessary to consider how listeners will actually be affected.

FN 74: Of course, no presiding person in a courtroom, legislature, classroom, polling place, or family dinner would take this hyperbole literally.

The Court’s blinkered and aphoristic approach to th eFirst Amendment may well promote corporate power atthe cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve. It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process. Americans may be forgiven if they do not feel the Court has advanced the cause of self-government today.

In a democratic society, the longstanding consensus on the need to limit corporate campaign spending should outweigh the wooden application of judge-made rules. The majority’s rejection of this principle "elevate[s] corporations to a level of deference which has not been seen at least since the days when substantive due process was regularly used to invalidate regulatory legislation thought to unfairly impinge upon established economic interests." 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.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Thu Jan 21, 2010 at 07:15 AM PST.

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