Supreme Court Eviscerates Campaign Finance Restrictions

Flickr/<a href="">aresauburn</a> (<a href="">Creative Commons</a>).

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Just when liberals thought their week couldn’t get any worse, the Supreme Court decided to gut campaign finance restrictions. The Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC., issued Thursday morning, opens the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending in elections. The ruling is just as bad for campaign finance reformers as they have long feared. Until Thursday, corporations and unions were prohibited from getting directly involved in elections. Now ExxonMobil can theoretically run ads urging voters to support Sarah Palin’s 2012 presidential campaign, and the AFL-CIO can run ads urging people to re-elect Barack Obama. “It’s like 100 years of precedent being overruled,” CNN’s senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, said on air shortly after the decision came out.

The decision follows the basic argument that has dogged most campaign finance laws that have faced court review: since longstanding court precedent says that corporations are legally people, deserving equal protection under the 14th Amendment, they must be accorded the right to free speech. The Court’s conservatives also believe that spending money in elections is a fundamental free speech right; thus, the government cannot restrict corporate spending in elections.

In the first paragraph of his 90-page dissent (joined in part by Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer), Justice John Paul Stevens accuses the conservative majority of going out of its way to “rewrite the law relating to campaign expenditures by for-profit corporations and unions.” Stevens goes on to directly challenge “the conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere,” calling it “not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.”

Stevens’ move to challenge the notion of corporate personhood—even indirectly—is radical. The entire edifice of American business law rests on the presumption that corporations deserve equal protection under the laws. But the majority’s decision is also groundbreaking. While it follows the contours of previous decisions, it is a far cry from the “judicial modesty” that Chief Justice John Roberts promised when he first took his place on the Court. The liberal justices on the court would almost certainly have been happy to join in a narrow decision on just the issue at hand—whether Citizens United, a political action committee, could spend its funds to televise an anti-Hillary Clinton screed, “Hillary: The Movie,” in the 30 days before last years’ primary election. The conservatives decided not to go that route. As David points out, this means that Roberts and the conservatives can no longer avoid the label of “activist” judges. They’ve turned the political system upside-down.

More Mother Jones reporting on Dark Money


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend