Thursday, January 21, 2010

SCOTUS Docket Watch - Citizens United v FEC Ruling Pt. 1

Newsflash ladies and gentlemen! In a 5-4 Decision this morning, the Supreme Court has overturned a 63 year old law and several lower court decisions that prohibited labor unions and private companies from using their own funds to air their own campaign ads. The Full text of the decision is available at

It leaves in place a prohibition on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions.

Critics of the stricter limits have argued that they amount to an unconstitutional restraint of free speech, and the court majority agreed.

"The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion, joined by his four more conservative colleagues.

Strongly disagreeing, Justice John Paul Stevens said in his dissent, "The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation."

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Stevens' dissent, parts of which he read aloud in the courtroom.

The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.

Advocates of strong campaign finance regulations have predicted that a court ruling against the limits would lead to a flood of corporate and union money in federal campaigns as early as this year's midterm congressional elections.

For those who have not followed the case, the controversy started when the Conservative Political group Citizens United created an anti-Hillary Clinton campaign video during her run for Presidency. Their goal was to air the ads thru "On-Demand" distribution services. The FEC and federal Courts took issue, saying the film looked more like a campaign ad, and enforced campaign advertising regulations on the film.

The issue developed as lower tried to draw distinctions between what is permissible for individuals, unions and corporations.

As for the immediate impact, expect a RIDICULOUS AMOUNT of spending by privately funded groups, including corporations and union groups in the upcoming midterm. The mechanics of the change simplify just how corporate money can be funneled to candidates:

This basically eliminates a middleman: before today, corporations and unions had to set up PACs (political action committees), filed separately with the IRS, that would receive donations. And they did. Corporations and unions spend millions of dollars on elections. Now, however, the accounting firewall is gone, and Wal-Mart or the Service Employees International Union, for instance, can spend their corporate money directly on candidates.

What do you think? How will the change impact the progressive movement, labor unions and the midterms? I will have more posts on the topic when I get a chance examine the full decision in greater detail.


  1. Basically I think it's insane.

    Free speech is not and has never been an uncomplicated, inviolate thing. We have legal limits on speech that range from ownership of intellectual property to fraud to libel to issues of safety, and beyond. Different kinds of speech, in different contexts, are different things.

    If the issue is censorship, the ruling will merely replace one form (governmental) with another (corporate).

    In this sense, the SCOTUS ruling represents exactly the same kind of bullshit free-market thinking that crashed the economy: government deregulation sure seemed like it would create the most efficiency, but actually it just cemented some of the most unscrupulous elements into power and let them run amok. To maintain substantive market competition, you need anti-trust legislation; to maintain a substantive national discourse, you need to leave room for causes that aren't backed by vast sums of money. Given that such discourse is even more vital to the maintenance of a democracy than economic stability, these limits need to be taken seriously.

    Also, to get at a deeper issue: corporations are not people with human rights. They are groups of people that are already potentially overpowerful because they consist of many individuals who can act in concert. This is particularly galling because corporations are not subject to the same legal responsibilities as individuals. I don't understand why charade continues. Oh wait... yes, I do.

    The way they went about it is also totally fucked up. Unless there's a major legal or historical reason to overturn its own precedent – and given that one of the previous cases was within the last decade, I think it's safe to say that there wasn't – the supreme court is supposed to respect its past rulings and work to maintain consistency. Pulling a case in just so previously-decided issues can be retried to reach another verdict is abhorrent procedure.

  2. I think this is actually better. Corporations have already been doing it, albeit illegally. Bringing it out in the open is never a bad idea. There is demand for money in campaigns and like it or not corporations and unions are the biggest suppliers. I hold a strong belief that prohibition of any supply when there is an incredibly demand never works. Wether that prohibition is of alcohol, marijuana, or in this case campaing financing. By prohibiting it we only make criminals out of the producers and consumers but do not treat the underlying problem. We only create a greater criminal element. We need to acknoledge that these practices exist and put some serious regulation behind and trust that when these donations take place out in the open they will allow corporate sponsoring to both sides of the isle that will eventually balance itself out because right now only the most unscrupulous businesses are working around this law. It is no wonder the country is so fucked up when only corporations willing to commit crimes are the ones that fund our government's agenda.

  3. Anonymous, you know we're not talking about literal bribes here, right? I'm not sure where you get the idea that only the unscrupulous corporations have monetarily-driven influence on government: they ALL do, and the ways in which they do are largely known and often regulated because they give unfair advantage to richer companies. This is precisely a question of "serious regulation" of "practices that exist".

    While the regulations that were in place until this week were obviously not tremendously effective, they were a lot more effective than the NOTHING AT ALL we have now. Particularly since this supreme court will probably try to block any future regulatory legislation at all.

    Most importantly, though, in what sense do you mean that if corporations control both sides of the aisle, that it will somehow "balance itself out"? It seems to me that we'd just be ASSURED of corporate-controlled legislation then. Are you seriously saying we should just give up and hope that they'll be nice to us? I sure hope not.

  4. Incidentally, what about corporations and the SECOND amendment?

  5. 6.54, What is a literal bribe to you? Is it one that comes in a sack with a big dollar sign on it? Or, is it a campaign donation that comes with a wink and a smile? You tell me. All I am saying is that it has already happened. Corporations control the government. You need to wake up and realize that no amount of regulation is going to change that. And, any kind of regulation that could is not going to be passed in a government that is controlled by corporations. i.e. the United States government.

  6. Propose an alternative that doesn't involve lying down and taking it, and I'll happily agree.