The Supreme Court's rejection of a long-shot legal challenge to let states bar corporate and union political contributions in their own elections underscores the legal quandary in which many left-of-center campaign finance reformers find themselves.
The court, in a 5-to-4 vote split along ideological lines, on Monday struck down a Montana ban on corporate political spending. The decision effectively upholds its landmark 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations and unions were entitled to the same free-speech protections as citizens.
Because the Supreme Court decided Citizens United only two years ago and its conservative majority remains intact, few legal experts expected it to rule in favor of the challenge.
The current case, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, stemmed from a century-old Montana law that prohibits corporations from spending money on political campaigns. The effort, joined by more than 20 states, stipulated that states should be allowed to carve out their own rules to regulate political fundraising and spending, an argument backed by the Montana Supreme Court when it ruled in favor of the state law last year.
But the Supreme Court, in a one-page per curiam opinion that shut the door on the possibility of oral arguments, curtly dismissed the notion that federal law didn’t apply.
The Citizens United decision, combined with other court cases and FEC rulings, has dramatically loosened fundraising and spending regulations for independent political organizations, which have proliferated since 2010 and become a major force in campaigns. Efforts to curb the spending through the judiciary have thus far proven fruitless. Paul Ryan, senior counsel to the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that seeks to limit the influence of money in politics, called the ruling “disappointing but predictable.”
“Unfortunately the only surprise would have been if the Supreme Court had taken the opportunity to revisit its horribly misguided decision in Citizens United,” Ryan said. “Clearly, the Supreme Court has decided to wash its hands of the disastrous results of its earlier decision. Apparently the same five Justices who gave us Citizens United are not troubled by the fact that special interests are picking the winners and losers in our federal and state elections.”
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed. He reiterated his existing objection to the Citizens United decision, arguing that the proliferation of political spending amounted to a quid pro quo arrangement between politicians and political spenders. He also backed the state’s right to decide on its own whether corporate spending constituted a corrupting influence, the threshold conservative justices have argued laws must pass to be constitutional.
“Thus, Montana’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,” Breyer wrote.
But even as the liberal justice signaled that he would like to reconsider Citizens United, he acknowledged that the court’s unchanging conservative majority means it's doubtful that there is a “significant possibility” the court will reverse itself -- something that left conservatives pleased.
“This closes the door on the argument that unique facts in a certain state can be employed to overturn [Citizens United],” said Jim Bopp, an Indiana campaign finance attorney who has spearheaded an array of challenges to campaign finance laws across the country. “Further, it means that independent expenditures are never corrupting as a matter of federal constitutional law.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime advocate for loosening campaign finance regulations, hailed it as “another important victory for freedom of speech.”
“Clearly, the much predicted corporate tsunami that critics of Citizens United warned about simply did not occur,” he said in a statement.