Taking Stock Of The Supreme Court's Citizens United Decision, 10 Years Later

Jan 22, 2020
Originally published on January 22, 2020 2:51 pm

It’s been 10 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Citizens United. We’ll look back at the last decade and take stock of the fallout.


Carrie Levine, senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. (@levinecarrie)

Bradley Smith, professor of law at Capital University Law School. (@CommishSmith)

Rick Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. (@rickhasen)

John S. Adams, editor-in-chief of the Montana Free Press. (@johnsadams406)

Interview Highlights

On how the influence of “mega-donors” has increased in American elections over the past decade 

Carrie Levine: “A recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics found that election related spending from those types of independent groups really ballooned over the past decade. It went from $750 million over the two decades before the decision to $4.5 billion over the decades since Citizens United. And so that’s a huge increase. And in some races, you know, you look at some congressional elections or districts, you can see that independent groups actually spend more money than the candidates. And so they’re really powerful voices sometimes in the outcome of a race. … In terms of where all that money is coming from, I think what we’ve seen is you’ve heard the term mega-donors — maybe most people have heard the term mega-donors — but there’s a small number of very wealthy people who have put in millions of dollars into these groups. And so very often you see this money coming from wealthy donors … the report found that the 10 biggest donors and their spouses together put about $1.2 billion into elections over the last decade.”

On common myths about the Citizens United trial

Bradley Smith: “Citizens United doesn’t hinge on the concept of corporate personhood. That really wasn’t an issue in the case. Nobody argued it. That’s been recognized by the Supreme Court for 200 years. So we have to look at, you know, what then was interesting about it? A couple other points that people don’t realize is before Citizens United, corporations were allowed to spend freely in candidate races — in state races, like governor, state attorney general, and so on — in over half our states. So it’s not like it was unheard of to have corporations spending money in political elections. Now, does the case matter? Yeah, it certainly matters because it does establish an important principle, I think.

“That the government can’t use prior restraint to stop people from speaking and stop voters from hearing voices. And we remember the case at hand involved an effort by a group, Citizens United, to promote and distribute a documentary movie about Hillary Clinton. Was it a biased documentary? Sure, it was a biased documentary. Was it an especially good documentary? Probably not. But I don’t think the First Amendment has ever said, ‘Well, if you’re biased, you lose your First Amendment rights.’ Or it’s ever said, you know, ‘If it doesn’t meet our standards as film critics, you lose your First Amendment rights.’ So the case is very important from a doctrinal standpoint. And it has influenced the way in which money is used in politics in a number of ways, some for better and some for worse. But I think on the whole, for better.”

On the social fallout of the Citizens United ruling

Carrie Levine: “There has been backlash to the Citizens United decision that’s been powerful. You know, that is, I think in part fueled the rise of the small donor boom. And the debate that we see now going on in the Democratic presidential primary about how candidates should raise money, how much access they should give to donors, whether they should welcome outside support from groups like super PACs. And so I think the consequences of it go beyond what is explicitly allowed by the decision itself, and into everything that has kind of happened since.”

From The Reading List

Slate:The Decade of Citizens United” — “In 2010, the largest reported individual contributors to federal campaigns in American politics were Robert and Doylene Perry, owners of Perry Homes, who donated about $7.5 million to support Republican and conservative candidates. In 2018, the largest reported contributors were casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who contributed about $122 million in outside money to support such candidates, representing a 16-fold increase over the Perrys’ 2010 contributions, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“What explains this dramatic shift in American elections, where the wealthiest Americans get to have even greater influence over who is elected and what policies elected officials pursue? The Supreme Court’s 2010 opinion, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

“In 2010, Citizens United held that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend sums independently to support or oppose candidates for office. Looking at the amount of direct corporate spending in elections over the past decade, one might think that Citizens United was a bust. Few for-profit corporations spend money in their own names boosting or dissing candidates. But this case helped to usher in a sea change in American elections, and its influence on the decade that followed is hard to overstate.”

Wall Street Journal: “Commentary: Celebrate the Citizens United Decade” — “‘Last week,” President Obama declared a decade ago, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.

“Mr. Obama was wrong in almost every respect about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which the court decided on Jan. 21, 2010. Hysterical predictions about Citizens United—then-Rep. Ed Markey, among others, compared it to Dred Scott—haven’t held up.

“Contrary to Mr. Obama’s assertion about a century of law, Citizens United overturned portions of McCain-Feingold, a campaign-finance law that wasn’t even 10 years old, and another law from 1947. Those laws prohibited unions and corporations, including nonprofits, from voicing support for or opposition to candidates for federal office.”

The Hill: “Citizens United decision weathers 10 years of controversy” — “A decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, which ushered in the era of super PACs and unlimited donations, the fight over the contentious ruling shows no signs of easing.

“The case upended the campaign finance system, after the justices in a 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy on Jan. 21, 2010 found that restrictions on corporate campaign spending violated free speech.

“Democrats blasted the decision, warning of the impact of corporate money flooding into elections. But the ruling also opened the door for labor unions and nonprofits to ramp up their campaign spending, altering the landscape.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: The legacy of ‘Citizens United’ has been destructive. We need campaign finance reform” — “Jan. 21 marks the 10th anniversary of the disastrous Citizens United decision, the most consequential — and destructive — campaign finance decision by the Supreme Court in nearly half a century. The legacy of Citizens United has been even more damaging than almost anyone understood when the ruling came down.

“The decision helped return the most dangerous and corrupting money to our elections. It provided the wealthiest Americans with a predominant role in campaign financing by giving birth to super PACs permitted to collect multimillion-dollar checks. It allowed hundreds of millions of dollars in large, secret contributions to be spent to influence federal elections through the use of undisclosed “dark money” given to nonprofits.

“In short, the destructive impact of Citizens United on our political system has made the Watergate campaign finance scandals, the worst of the last century, look like child’s play.”

Liam Knox adapted this segment for the web. 

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