In a 5-4 decision issued this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court radically altered campaign finance law, obliterating the long-held distinction between spending by individuals and spending by corporations.
The case, Citizens United v. FEC, dealt with a challenge to an FEC ruling barring the airing of an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary during the 2008 primary elections. The lower court had said the McCain-Feingold law of 2002 prohibited the planned broadcasts because they would be aired during the 30 day period before a presidential primary and were paid for with corporate money.
The Supreme Court was faced with determining whether the lower court’s ruling was Constitutional. They were originally expected to rule narrowly on the particular merits and circumstances of this unusual case, but instead, the Court issued a sweeping and expansive ruling that undermines 100 years of precedent and law.
Here’s how the Campaign Legal Center describes it:
Today’s decision from the Supreme Court is an extreme example of judicial overreach that arbitrarily overturns decades of precedent and undercuts the powers of the legislative branch. What the Supreme Court majority did today was empower corporations to use their enormous wealth and urge the election or defeat of federal candidates, and in doing so, buy even more power over the legislative process and government decision making. As a result of this decision, for profit corporations and industries will be able to threaten members of Congress with negative ads if they vote against corporate interests, and to spend tens of millions on campaign ads to “punish” those who do not knuckle under to their lobbying threats.
Experts predict that this ruling will not only have implications for federal campaign finance law, but will require a change in North Carolina law as well. They also predict that this could be one more step in the court’s march toward a place where traditional campaign finance regulations are rendered meaningless. In four other cases since Roberts became Chief Justice, the Court has circumscribed campaign finance law, and there is no reason to think they will stop now.
Given this context, the only viable reform option is to create a comprehensive system of public campaign financing that encourages small donor giving and allows candidates to run special interest free. The small donor incentives and competitive funding stream present in most Voter-Owned, public financing systems would give candidates the capacity to compete with outside corporate money in a post-Citizens United fundraising world. And since public campaign financing is voluntary, it should not face any Constitutional troubles, even from an activist right-wing Court.
If one good thing can come out of today’s decision, it would be a new realization at the federal, state, and local levels, that fundamental campaign reform is needed to safeguard our democracy. By enacting public campaign financing systems, our leaders can create a way out of the campaign money chase and set our system of government up to withstand the worst of the damage that today’s ruling will bring.