Citizens United Just Will Not Die in the Supreme Court


It seems as though there’s frenzy over American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, where the Supreme Court struck down Montana’s ban on corporate political money – ruling 5 to 4 that controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling applies to state and local elections. The court agreed on the same lines as the Citizen United case where the court ruled that corporate money as speech and therefore allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. In a macro-perspective, it also highlights that the court found that states can’t do anything to limit corporate contributions to campaigns. Furthermore, by strengthening Citizens United, the Supreme Court allows corporations who have vested interests in, for instance, anti-immigration laws and private prison systems to have a greater influence on elections rather than regular citizens.

However, this isn’t the first time Citizens United has been reaffirmed. As a matter of fact, roughly a year ago, the Supreme Court (5-to-4) struck down an Arizona law that provided matching funds to candidates who accept public funding. The Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act was passed by a ballot initiative in 1998, which gave public money to candidates who agreed to limit their personal spending to $500 and participate in a least one debate and return unspent money. These candidates also received initial grants and more money based on the amount spent by privately financed opponents and by independent groups supporting them. Other states such as Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, and North Carolina have tried to adopt similar financing systems, but courts have struck down the enforcement of them. “Laws like Arizona’s matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. Roberts continued, “It is not legitimate for the government to attempt to equalize opportunities in this matter. And such basic intrusion by the government into the debate over who should govern goes to the heart of the First Amendment values.” However, what the Arizona law is actually doing is offering support to any person running for state office. The law funds more speech and provides an opportunity for candidate, who otherwise, would be fearful of being outspent and sensitive to wasting money simply on campaigning. Striking down the law only creates a smaller pool of candidates, which decreased civil engagement and the well-being of democracy. In the campaign world today, it seems as though only those who can afford to campaign and have rich donors would win the elections – not those who represent the public opinion or actually know what they’re doing.

Indeed, Roberts' claims that “leveling the playing field can sound like a good thing. But in democracy, campaigning for office is not a game.” However, the structure of how campaign financing works under Citizens United, ironically morphs campaigning into the hunger games where only the richest will survive. Furthermore, if states are considered the “experiments of democracy,” then as Elena Kagan wrote, the country “deserves a government that represents and serves them all… a chance to reform their electoral system so as to attain the most American of goals.” Surely under such jurisdiction, democracy is not a game.

As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the decision on Montana, “an important victory for freedom of speech,” may he also embrace his past ideology that “public disclosure of campaign contributions and spending should be expedited so that voters can judge for themselves what is appropriate.”