campaign finance

Citizens United and State Laws

The Citizens United decision didn’t merely overturn nearly a century of federal laws and precedents; it also threw state campaign finance laws into turmoil. Before Citizens United, 24 states restricted corporate spending in elections. After the Supreme Court invalidated the federal laws governing corporate influence in political campaigns, states started scrambling to prepare for their own campaign finance laws to be struck down. And none too soon: as we’ve mentioned before, legal challenges have already started to bring down some of these state-level laws.

On Monday, Wisconsin’s attorney general formally announced that the state’s campaign finance laws would have to be repealed. A local news station reported that lifting these restrictions could lead to an increase in campaign spending from $30 million last year to $90 million this year. It remains to be seen whether Wisconson, like many of the other states affected by the Supreme Court decision, will enact disclosure laws to lessen the impact of corporate money on elections.

The conservative majority on the Roberts court didn’t just invalidate the anti-corruption measures enacted by our democratically elected Congress. It also limited the ability of state governments to decide for themselves how to regulate their own elections. Wisconsin’s election laws are just the latest casualty. To keep track of what’s happening in other states, go here.

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GOP’s Citizens United Hypocrisy

As we witness the growing influx of corporate spending in elections from Kentucky to Minnesota as a result of the Citizens United ruling, campaigns across the country are bracing for a barrage of corporate expenditures. Senate Republicans claim that by refusing to allow the DISCLOSE Act to come up for a vote, they are defending free speech rights established by the Court. But Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute criticizes the Republicans’ dangerously selective view of the Citizens United decision. While the 5-4 decision grants for-profit corporations the same free speech rights as individuals, the Court also ruled 8-1 to affirm the government’s right to enact rigorous campaign disclosure laws:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who holds the undisputed twin titles of No. 1 campaign finance anti-reformer and No. 1 hypocrite, once said he didn't understand why a little disclosure is better than a lot of disclosure. Now the Kentucky Republican is leading his party and outside activists in spurning the clear, 8-1 mandate of the Roberts Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision to encourage robust disclosure, as they call the disclosure they once championed a horrendous burden and even an unconstitutional blockage of free speech.

Even though Senate Republicans defend Citizens United, going so far as to compare it to Brown v. Board of Education, they appear to dismiss the Supreme Court’s approval of disclosure requirements to prevent secretive and misleading campaign practices by corporations. Like candidates running for office, CEOs of corporations should appear in their advertisements and go on record with their political expenditures, and publicly report money used for political purposes. As constitutional law expert Lawrence Tribe writes:

[F]ederal legislation should, at a minimum, build on the disclosure and disclaimer requirements that the Court upheld by an 8-1 vote in Citizens United, requirements specifying that electioneering communications funded by anyone other than the candidate must disclose who is “responsible for the content of this advertising” and must display on screen “in a clearly readable manner” for at least four seconds the name and address or website of whoever funded the communication.


 

 

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Guess Who’s Against the DISCLOSE Act?

Citizens United empowered corporate and special interest lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts influencing elections. Not surprisingly, lobbyists hired by powerful interests are now the most vocal opponents of campaign finance reform. Roll Call reports that these lobbyists outdid themselves fighting the DISCLOSE Act:

Lobbying records make it difficult to determine exactly how much corporate interests and watchdog groups have spent trying the influence the bill since it was introduced this spring.

Still, the public disclosures clearly show that since April 1, more than 100 lobbying firms, corporations, unions, watchdog groups and trade associations have registered to influence facets of the DISCLOSE Act, which would bulk up disclosure requirements for companies, trade associations and unions that run televised political ads with unregulated money.

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Senate GOP Blocks Election Transparency, Baucus Responds with Constitutional Amendment

Republicans succeeded today in blocking Senate consideration of the DISCLOSE Act, a modest first attempt to start reigning in the money-in-politics free-for-all the Supreme Court set loose in January’s Citizens United decision.

The successful filibuster of DISCLOSE is frustrating, but it makes one thing very clear: the only way for voters to fully take back our democracy is to pass a Constitutional Amendment undoing the damage of Citizens United.

After the Senate’s vote on DISCLOSE, Sen. Max Baucus introduced a resolution calling for just such an amendment:

Baucus said:

The impact of Citizens United goes well beyond merely changing campaign finance law. This decision will impact the ability of Congress, as well as State and local legislatures, to pass laws designed to protect its constituents—individual Americans—when such legislation comes under fierce objection by large corporations. Corporations are now free to spend millions targeting individual lawmakers. Lawmakers’ ability to pass laws such as consumer safety or investor protection now faces even greater challenges when such laws merely threaten the corporate bottom line.

Congress and the American people must respond swiftly and firmly. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United has severely altered Congress’s ability to limit corporate spending in our electoral process.

The amendment simply returns the power of regulating election spending to Congress and the states. Here it is in its entirety:

Section 1. Congress shall have the power to regulate the contribution of funds by corporations and labor organizations to a candidate for election to, or for nomination for election to, a Federal office, and the power to regulate the expenditure of funds by corporations and labor organizations made in support of, or opposition to, such candidates.

Section 2. A State shall have the power to regulate the contribution of funds by corporations and labor organizations to a candidate for election to, or for nomination for election to, public office in the State, and the power to regulate the expenditure of funds by corporations and labor organizations made in support of, or opposition to, such candidates.

Section 3. Nothing contained in this Amendment shall be construed to allow Congress or a State to make any law abridging the freedom of the press.”

We’ve asked all federal elected officials and candidates to sign on to a pledge to support a Constitutional Amendment to reverse Citizens United. Find out more at www.pledgefordemocracy.org.
 

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The Supreme Court's Conservative Ideology

Some conservatives are still trying to argue that the Supreme Court is in danger of being overrun by “liberal activists.” But an article in Sunday’s New York Times, entitled “Court Under Roberts Is Most Conservative In Decades,” presented data from political scientists that pretty conclusively showed a conservative, not a liberal, ideology entrenched in the highest court.

One piece of data really stood out to me:

Four of the six most conservative justices of the 44 who have sat on the court since 1937 are serving now: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia and, most conservative of all, Clarence Thomas. (The other two were Chief Justices Burger and Rehnquist.) Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the swing justice on the current court, is in the top 10.

That’s right: the current “swing” justice is considered one of the ten most conservative judges of the past 70 years. Centrist justices are in some ways even more important than the Court’s ideologues or even chief justices. As the Times article notes, the court’s most extreme shift to the right occurred when Justice O’Connor was replaced with the much more conservative Justice Alito:

By the end of her almost quarter-century on the court, Justice O’Connor was without question the justice who controlled the result in ideologically divided cases. “

On virtually all conceptual and empirical definitions, O’Connor is the court’s center — the median, the key, the critical and the swing justice,” Andrew D. Martin and two colleagues wrote in a study published in 2005 in The North Carolina Law Review shortly before Justice O’Connor’s retirement.

With Justice Alito joining the court’s more conservative wing, Justice Kennedy has now unambiguously taken on the role of the justice at the center of the court, and the ideological daylight between him and Justice O’Connor is a measure of the Roberts court’s shift to the right.

The statistics back up a right wing trend on the Supreme Court that has been hard to ignore. Since Alito joined the Court, it has made startling decision after startling decision, including overturning democratically enacted restrictions on corporate spending in Citizens United v FEC, and defending discrimination against women in the workplace in Ledbetter v Goodyear.

Just one justice can make the difference between democratically enacted campaign finance laws and unlimited corporate spending in elections; between employment discrimination laws that work for employees and those that work for employers; between our democracy holding corporations accountable and corporations owning our democracy.

All of which is why, when we talk about presidents and senators, we have to talk about the Court.

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The Next Frontier in Undoing Campaign Finance Reform

Since the Supreme Court decided earlier this year that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend however much they like to influence elections, groups have been attempting to use that decision to hack away at the core of federal and state campaign finance laws.

Last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the federal ban on soft money (unlimited contributions to political parties), a centerpiece of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. Though that case was cut short, at least one other challenge to the law is in the works.

Now, groups at the state level are trying to use the Citizens United decision as leverage to do away with bans not only on independent expenditures by corporations, but also on corporate contributions directly to candidates’ bank accounts. 22 states, like the federal government, prohibit corporations from contributing directly to campaign committees. After Citizens United, business groups in Montana were the first out of the gates, filing suit to get rid of Montana’s 98-year old ban on both independent campaign expenditures by corporations (the spending that Citizens United allowed on the federal level) and direct corporate contributions to campaigns (which Citizens United didn’t touch).

In May, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce convinced a federal court to strike down that state’s independent expenditures ban. Now, Minnesota business interests are following the Montanans’ lead and broadening their challenge to include the state’s ban on direct contributions:

State law now allows corporations to spend money independently of campaigns on ads supporting or opposing candidates, an arrangement that the U.S. Supreme Court approved early this year.

But the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and Coastal Travel Enterprises seek to go beyond that ruling and allow direct contributions to candidates by corporations.

"Our clients believe ... that the First Amendment gives corporations ... the right to contribute to candidates and political parties through their general treasury funds," said Joe La Rue, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who sued this week in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court clearly created a slippery slope of corporate money in politics. State-level bans on independent spending by corporations have been the first to go. Will guards against corporate-to-candidate contributions—and the very clear appearance of corruption that they create—be next
 

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Hatch’s Citizens United Tirade

Sen. Orrin Hatch spent his entire question time lambasting the arguments Kagan made as Solicitor General defending campaign finance limits in Citizens United v. FEC, and trying to get Kagan to express her personal views on the case. She declined.

“I want to make a clear distinction,” Kagan said, “between my role as an advocate and any opinions I might have as a judge.”

The result was something of a half-hour soapbox for Sen. Hatch to heap praise on Citizens United (and criticize its critics) while Kagan repeatedly distanced herself from the issue. Hatch might want to take a look at our recent poll, which shows that the critics of Citizens United include the majority of Americans.

It’s remarkable that Hatch, who has always spoken so highly of judicial restraint, is so happy to have judges overruling acts of Congress. Apparently he’s changed his opinion on “judicial activism.”

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Star of the Kagan Hearings is the Corporate Court

Democratic Senators used the opportunity of Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings today focus attention on nine people who were not in the room. The Senators called the Roberts Court out for some of its more outrageous decisions as they began to reframe the debate on the role of the Court and the Constitution. Central to the discussion was the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, in which it overturned a century of settled law to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.

Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was one of the chief designers of the campaign finance rules that the Supreme Court knocked down in Citizens United. He said:

[W]hen a decision like the one handed down earlier this year by a 5-4 vote in the Citizens United case uproots longstanding precedent and undermines our democratic system, the public’s confidence in the Court can’t help but be shaken. I was very disappointed in that decision, and in the Court for reaching out to change the landscape of election law in a drastic and wholly unnecessary way. By acting in such an extreme and unjustified manner, the Court badly damaged its own integrity. By elevating the rights of corporations over the rights of people, the Court damaged our democracy.

Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island took on the Court’s pro-corporate leanings by brilliantly co-opting Chief Justice Roberts’ famous baseball metaphor:

Only last week, the Rent-A-Center decision concluded that an employee who challenges as unconscionable an arbitration demand must have that challenge decided by the arbitrator. And the Citizens United decision -- yet another 5-4 decision -- created a constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited money in American elections, opening our democratic system to a massive new threat of corruption and corporate control.
There is an unmistakable pattern. For all the talk of umpires and balls and strikes at the Supreme Court, the strike zone for corporations gets better every day.

Ted Kaufman of Delaware told Kagan, “I plan to spend the bulk of my time asking you about the Court’s business cases, based on my concern about its apparent bias.”

The Court’s decision last fall in the Citizens United case, which several of my colleagues have mentioned, is the latest example of the Court’s pro-corporate bent. The majority opinion in that case should put the nail in the coffin of claims that “judicial activism” is a sin committed by judges of only one political ideology.

What makes the Citizens United decision particularly troubling is that it is at odds with what some of the Court’s most recently confirmed members said during their confirmation hearings. We heard a great deal then about their deep respect for existing precedent. Now, however, that respect seems to vanish whenever it interferes with a desired pro-business outcome.

Al Franken of Minnesota explained the real impact of campaign finance laws:

Now, you’ve heard a lot about this decision already today, but I want to come at it from a slightly different angle.
There is no doubt: the Roberts Court’s disregard for a century of federal law—and decades of the Supreme Court’s own rulings—is wrong. It’s shocking. And it’s torn a gaping hole in our election laws.

So of course I’m worried about how Citizens United is going to change our elections.

But I am more worried about how this decision is going to affect our communities—and our ability to run those communities without a permission slip from big business.

Citizens United isn’t just about election law. It isn’t just about campaign finance.

It’s about seat belts. It’s about clean air and clean water. It’s about energy policy and the rights of workers and investors. It’s about health care. It’s about our ability to pass laws that protect the American people even if it hurts the corporate bottom line.

As Justice Stevens said, it’s about our “need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government.

And finally, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois summed up the retort to any GOP Senator complaining about “judicial activism”:

We've heard from those across the aisle about their support for traditionalism, and their opposition to judicial activism. I have two words for them: Citizens United.

We’re looking forward to hearing a lot more about Citizens United and the Corporate Court as the hearings progress
 

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Supreme Court Rules for Campaign Disclosure, But Divided Over How Far it Should Go

In a ruling that may bode well for the longevity of the campaign finance disclosure law currently being considered by Congress, the Supreme Court today ruled that the First Amendment does not give people a blanket right to keep their political activity under wraps. But the Justices disagreed on the extent to which the First Amendment allows privacy for controversial political activity.

The case, Doe v. Reed, was brought by a group of people who had signed a petition to put a measure on the ballot in Washington that would have voided the state’s domestic partnership laws. Washington’s law says that the names on such petitions have to be publicly available. The group of plaintiffs argued that the exposure of their names would expose them to harassment, therefore violating their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, disagreed that the disclosure law was unconstitutional on its face, but left the door open for the anti-marriage equality petitioners to claim the law was an unfair burden in their specific case.

The spread of the justices’ opinions on the specific case of Protect Marriage Washington shows their ideological differences on the subject—and could shed light on what will happen if the Court considers something like the DISCLOSE Act.

Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog explains:

There were several separate opinions. Justice Alito wrote a separate concurrence that is quite sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ as-applied challenge on remand. Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, that is very doubtful about that challenge. Justice Stevens also wrote his own concurring opinion, joined by Justice Breyer, to make the same point, albeit perhaps not as strongly, while Justice Breyer wrote a separate concurring opinion indicating that he doesn’t think that Justice Stevens’ opinion is inconsistent with the Chief Justice’s opinion. Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion which takes the position that such a First Amendment claim could never prevail. Justice Thomas was the only dissenter; he would have held that the plaintiffs prevailed on their broad facial challenge to the disclosure provision.

The plaintiffs, having lost their broad facial claim, thus also face significant difficulty in prevailing in their remaining challenge to the disclosure of their identities with respect to this specific referendum. Justices Thomas and Alito are obviously sympathetic to that claim. But five Justices – a majority of the Court – take the opposite view; Justice Scalia rejects it outright and the four more liberal members of the Court express significant doubts about the claim’s viability.

Rachel wrote earlier today about Justice Scalia’s vocal support for transparency laws, and his opinion in Doe v. Reed confirms that he walks his talk. As Goldstein calculates, if a campaign finance disclosure law comes before the Supreme Court, Scalia’s vote could break up the Citizens United majority and shift the Court’s majority toward disclosure and transparency.
 

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Senator Sessions Plays the “Judicial Activism” Card

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Senator Jeff Sessions said that that Goodwin Liu’s writings represent “liberal judicial activism.” And he doesn’t like it!

But what Sessions apparently does like is conservative judicial activism. Overturn more than a century of settled campaign finance law? Limit women’s ability to recover for being discriminated against on their jobs? Hand billions of dollars to Exxon? Rewrite the Voting Rights Act? That’s a-ok! “Liberal judicial activism,” (by which I assume he means opposing those decisions)? Bad.

Senator Sessions’s ability to keep a straight face while delivering such patently farcical attack is impressive. His stale talking points aren’t.
 

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Meet the Right’s Newest Judicial Codeword

Maybe the Right Wing is finally realizing that after Citizens United, “judicial activism” just doesn’t cut it for slamming judicial nominees who aren’t willing to overturn a century of settled campaign finance law. So they’re trotting out a brand new talking point to fill the void: “outcome based” judging.

CQ-Roll Call highlighted the up-and-coming new meme:

As part of that effort, Republicans beginning this week will look to use some of Obama’s previous lower court picks — particularly the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — as adhering to a liberal, “outcomes-based” philosophy rather than a constitutionalist approach.

What’s it mean? Allow us to translate: “Liberal activist!! Legislate from the bench!! Empathy! Wise Latina!!!! OMG OMG OMG!!!!”

Yes, “outcome based” is just the latest in a long line of virtually meaningless epithets aimed at any judicial nominee who disagrees with the gospel according to Robert Bork.

Is there a debate to be had between different philosophies towards applying the Constitution? Sure. Justice Scalia and Justice Breyer have it all the time. But this isn’t it. In the upcoming confirmation process for Justice Stevens’s successor, the American people deserve a conversation about the Court and the role it plays in the lives of ordinary people. Unfortunately, it seems like the GOP is planning the same warmed-over sound bytes we’ve been getting for years.
 

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The New Preamble

The New Preamble:

We the corporations of the United States, in order to accumulate historically unparalleled wealth, take advantage of limited liability, control the nation's news media, exercise monopolistic and oligarchic control over trade, and secure the blessings of power to ourselves and our subsidiaries, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Personally, I kind of liked the old "We the People" idea, back when we thought the Constitution existed to protect people's liberty. Guess I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy. It'll take a constitutional amendment to get our Constitution back.

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It’s More than Balls and Strikes

The Supreme Court is about to hear argument in a case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that should put an end to the myth advanced by Chief Justice Roberts at his confirmation hearing that he, as a Justice, is simply serving as an umpire, calling balls and strikes about what the law provides without any intention of influencing the direction of the law.  

After hearing oral argument last term, the Court postponed a decision in Citizens United, which involves the FEC’s attempt to treat an anti-Hillary Clinton movie as an impermissible “electioneering communication,” and ordered the parties to submit briefs that address the question of whether regulating corporate expenditures in candidate elections is constitutional. So instead of deciding the case in front of them, those who had been on the losing side in the past have reached out to redecide an issue that had been settled. 

Regardless of where you are on the merits of regulating express candidate advocacy by corporations – the issues of campaign finance regulation and the question currently being addressed by the Court are extraordinarily complex and weighty – it seems likely that those formerly in the minority, including Justice Roberts, seeing a change in the make-up of the Court (with Justice Alito replacing Justice O'Connor, who originally helped decide the quesiton), have seized a potential opportunity to re-make the law.  

So let’s be clear. Chief Justice Roberts isn't just calling balls and strikes: he's actually determining which pitches get thrown. 

Judges bring their own legal ideology to the table when they decide cases. It makes a difference whether the next nominee to the Supreme Court understands that the law and the Constitution mandate protections for average Americans against the interests of the more powerful. It makes a difference whether the next nominee to the Supreme Court understands that the law and the Constitution protect important privacy rights. It makes a difference that the next nominee appreciates that the law and the Constitution affect the realities of Americans’ everyday lives. It’s not just balls and strikes. Judicial philosophy matters.

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