Any hope that the Supreme Court would reconsider the disastrous Citizens United decision was dashed this morning, when the Court in a 5-4 decision summarily reversed a Montana Supreme Court decision on campaign finance without even hearing oral arguments. Rather than acknowledge the obvious damage done to our democracy in the 2½ years since Citizens United was decided, the five arch-conservatives solidified the distorted electoral playing field they created that lets the powerful few overwhelm the rest of America in deciding our elections.
Citizens United struck down federal restrictions on corporate independent expenditures to support or defeat a candidate based on two premises: (1) the First Amendment gives corporations the same First Amendment right as people to make independent expenditures to influence elections; and (2) independent expenditures do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. But late last year, the Montana Supreme Court upheld that state’s restrictions on corporate independent expenditures, citing its unique history of political corruption and the many factors that distinguish state and local races from the federal races at issue in Citizens United.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court quickly granted a request to stay that decision as likely at odds with Citizens United, two Justices pointed out the opportunity the Montana case raised to re-examine Citizens United’s faulty factual assumptions:
Montana's experience, and experience elsewhere since [Citizens United] make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates' allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.
Today, due to Citizens United and its progeny, political candidates’ top staffers go off to form purportedly independent “super PACs” to accept the multi-million dollar checks that the formal campaign cannot legally accept. Karl Rove and his allies are planning to raise $1 billion, much of it anonymously given, to impose Republican control over all levers of the federal government. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce funnel millions upon millions of dollars from corporate coffers to buy up the airwaves, refusing to disclose to the American people who is paying for the political advertising they are bombarded with.
Even when wealthy donors hide their identity from the American people, they make themselves known to the candidates who benefit from their largesse. No one doubts their influence over the officials who they put into office – and who they could turn their millions of dollars against if crossed.
No one who has seen the transformation in our democracy in the past 29 months could possibly believe that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” This basic factual assumption underlying Citizens United has been shown to be incorrect.
As Justice Breyer said in his dissent from the Court’s decision:
“[M]ontana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”
The Montana case was the Court’s chance to right a terrible wrong and take our country off a dangerously anti-democratic path. History will remember this as a great opportunity lost to the American people.