The U.S. Supreme Court could decide this week to revisit its controversial 2010 ruling that allows for virtually unlimited corporate spending in elections.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.
In a more recent case, American Tradition Partnership vs. Bullock, the Montana court enforced that state’s anti-corruption election finance laws in seeming opposition to the federal mandate. It ruled that the Citizens United decision applies to federal elections, not Montana elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court has three options available at its June 21 Conference: summary reversal; accepting the case for a full hearing later this year; or refusing jurisdiction to make any decision about the case at all, in which event Montana would win immediately and the state laws would stand. Citizens United would be effectively reversed in Montana, but that could also spread to other states.
The Citizens United decision is perhaps the most controversial Supreme Court ruling in recent memory. Politicians have battled on Capitol Hill ever since the January 2010 ruling. When President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address days later, he scolded the Supreme Court justices who sat right below him.
"With all due deference
Others, such as Oregonian guest columnist Paul deLespinasse, defended the ruling. He said the decision upholds freedom of speech in the First Amendment and allows unions, as well as corporations, to spend money on political advocacy. While he acknowledges that some people may be easily manipulated by political advertising, he argues that elections ultimately are decided by voters, not by money.
"The true remedy to any problems that may have been created by Citizens United is for Americans to take citizenship seriously, to actively seek to inform themselves, and to learn how to think about political candidates and issues so that they cannot be manipulated by anybody," deLespinasse concludes.
He makes a good point, but we’re more inclined to agree with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the most outspoken critics of the Supreme Court on this issue. He called the decision "uninformed, arrogant, naïve" and said that allowing an "incredible amount of money" to enter political races opens the door for corruption.
"I think there will be scandals associated with the worst decision of the United States Supreme Court in the 21st century," McCain said on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
Asked about Nevada billionaire and GOP financier Sheldon Adleson’s recent pledge of $10 million to the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, McCain said it’s the threat of not just one but many potential donors that hurts the electoral system.
"The whole system is broken and it’s a wash. I don’t pick out Mr. Adleson any more than I pick out Mr. Trumka," McCain said, referring to the AFL-CIO leader who helped finance Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
"I’ve always been concerned about the labor unions who take money from their union members and without their permission contribute to causes they may not support," McCain said.
As for deLespinasse’s contention that the 99 percent need to actively inform themselves and be more involved in the political process to avoid being manipulated, that is exactly what’s happening in the national effort to reverse the Citizens United ruling. Over the past two years there has been a growing movement with hundreds of towns, cities and organizations across the country passing resolutions for a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overrule the Citizens United decision.
Just this past April, Vermont became the third state to pass a resolution calling on Congress to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics and reverse the 2010 ruling. The resolution passed the Vermont House 92-40 and the state Senate 26-3.
The fight remains an uphill battle, however. Amending the Constitution requires approval by a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate, and then it must be ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the 50 states.
It would be so much easier if the Supreme Court reversed its earlier decision.