Citizens United v. FEC: A Debate

On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in a landmark decision. Penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC struck down several federal laws that prohibited independent political expenditures by unions and corporations (1). The decision did not overturn the ban on direct contributions from unions or corporations to candidates (2).

Money & Politics

Some praised the 5-4 ruling, while others say it was destructive, giving corporations and special interests even more power in Washington. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell applauded the ruling, while Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold, co-crafters of the 2002 Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act, denounced the court’s decision. “There’s going to be, over time, a backlash … when you see the amounts of union and corporate money that’s going to go into political campaigns.” While McCain was disappointed by the decision, he was not surprised. “Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor, who had taken a different approach to this issue, both had significant political experience, while Justice Roberts, Scalia and Alito have none. (3)”

While several prominent Republicans opposed the court’s ruling, most libertarians and conservatives praised the decision. Heritage Foundation fellow Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former Republican member of the Federal Election Commission, said “The Supreme Court has restored a part of the First Amendment that had been unfortunately stolen by Congress and a previously wrongly-decided ruling of the court. (4)” Such was the reasoning of the high court. Kennedy wrote: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech. (5)”

While political leaders on Capitol Hill debated the court’s decision, local citizens across the country voiced their own opinions. Nate Lambeth, a student at William and Mary School of Law, was skeptical of the court’s decision. “Are corporations associations of people? Obviously Kennedy says so, but that’s quite a leap. I see this more as a ‘corporate personhood’ case rather than related to free speech.” Luis Sosa, a business owner in the New York City area, agreed with Nate. “Corporations are not citizens…they are not individual people. A corporation is a legal structure, a shell in which individuals can operate together. They cannot be parallel to an individual.”

Nathan Shapiro, a student at Hofstra University School of Law, disagreed that corporations shouldn’t be treated like people. “The first amendment is plain and exhaustive: ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.’ This right extends from individuals, to small groups to corporate structures, including the media. The founders did not want the federal government anywhere near making laws about speech.” Some saw this case not about free speech, but about ‘paid speech’. Michael Heinz, a graduate of Stony Brook University, addressed this issue. “I suppose my main concern is the quantification of speech. I don’t believe the government can tell a corporation whether or not they can air an ad or a movie advocating a particular political viewpoint. But I do believe that campaign contributions are something the government has every right to regulate. All this decision did was make it easier for corporate “persons” to tighten their already vice-like grip on the lawmakers of this country.”

Evan Wolfson, a civil rights activist who argued Boy Scouts of America v. Dale in front of the Supreme Court a decade ago, is ambivalent towards the ruling. Like many gay activists in the country who feel that the U.S. government should do more to promote gay rights, Wolfson believes the time has come for this change to happen. “I hope the court shows the same concern for gays as it does for corporations.”

*Andrew Bruskin is a contributing editor for All About Business, an organization geared towards economic empowerment and community advocacy throughout the United States. He was the elected president of The National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS), a national honor society comprised of 230 chapters in all 50 states of the U.S. with over 650,000 members. Currently attending the College of William and Mary School of Law, Andrew is a contributing editor for the Constitutional Law Society and the founder and co-president of the Northeast Legal Society. He can be reached at Andrew.Bruskin@gmail.com

FOOTNOTES

Hasen, Richard 2010-01-21. Money Grubbers: The Supreme Court Kills Campaign Finance Reform. Slate. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/us/politics/22scotus.html

Carney, Eliza 2010-01-21. Court Unlikely to Stop with Citizens United. National Journal Online. http://www.nationaljournal.com/njonline/rg_20100121_2456.php.

Amick, John 2010-01-24. McCain Skeptical Supreme Court Decision can be Countered. The Washington Post. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2010/01/mccain-skeptical-supreme-court.html?wprss=44

Stephen, Dinan 2010-1-21. Divided Court Strikes Down Campaign Money Restrictions. Washington Times. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jan/21/divided-court-strikes-down-campaign-money-restrict/?page=2

Liptak, Adam 2010-01-21. Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/us/politics/22scotus.html

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Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 1:58 pm Comments Off on Citizens United v. FEC: A Debate
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