The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) has been credited with damaging our democracy due to its treatment of corporations as “persons” with the same rights, including free speech, of individuals. The case originally addressed “electioneering communications,” defined by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA or McCain-Feingold) as broadcast ads that clearly identify a federal candidate, are targeted to the candidate’s electorate and are broadcast within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The non-profit group Citizens United had planned to offer (through video on demand) a political documentary, Hillary: The Movie (with similar motives to the political documentary about Obama, 2016), less than 30 days before the 2008 primaries. Because of BCRA, the federal government stopped them, and the case went to court.
In 2009, the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Citizens United group wanted a decision on a narrow question: did the BCRA’s rules on electioneering communications apply to their situation? However, as mentioned in a previous post, the conservative justices instructed the parties to re-argue the case on the much more expansive question suggested by Justice Kennedy, regarding the constitutionality of BCRA’s provisions for corporations and unions. Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens commented that the justices in the majority “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
In a 5-4 decision along partisan lines, the Court struck down portions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act by ruling that they violated the First Amendment. Specifically, the Court ruled that the First Amendment protected unrestricted independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. However, the case did not affect the federal ban on direct contributions from corporate or union treasury funds to political candidates and parties. This still remains illegal in races for federal office.
The next few blog posts will outline the questions considered by the Court and the majority and minority opinions for each.