At Politico Arena, today’s focus is on the Court and campaign finance.
At Politico Arena, today’s focus is on the Court and campaign finance.
The Citizens United decision is barely out, and incumbent members of Congress are vowing to restore restrictions on political speech.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) said: “In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”
In the House of Representatives, Robert Brady, Chairman of the House Administration Committee - the panel responsible for campaign finance regulations - sent out an email that said: “I will be working directly with my colleagues, the Leadership and the White House to study the Court’s decision and to put together a timeline for legislative action that ensures the Court’s decision will not define the ways elections are conducted in 2010.”
It is difficult to see how Feingold, Brady and other members of Congress will be able to get around the clear and certain language of the Citizens United decision. But they will try. Nothing worries members more than free and critical speech, especially when the upcoming election already looks really bad for incumbents.
Today the Supreme Court struck a major blow for free speech by correctly holding that government cannot try to “level the political playing field” by banning corporations from making independent campaign expenditures on films, books, or even campaign signs.
As Justice Kennedy said in announcing the opinion, “if the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits jailing citizens for engaging in political speech.”
While the Court has long upheld campaign finance regulations as a way to prevent corruption in elections, it has also repeated that equalizing speech is never a valid government interest.
After all, to make campaign spending equal, the government would have to prevent some people or groups from spending less than they wished. That is directly contrary to protecting speech from government restraint, which is ultimately the heart of American conceptions about the freedom of speech.
No case demonstrates this idea better than Citizens United, where a nonprofit corporation made no donations to candidates but rather spent money to spread its ideas about Hillary Clinton independent of the campaigns of primary opponent Barack Obama, potential general election opponent John McCain, or any other candidates. Where is the “corruption” if the campaign(s) being supported have no knowledge, let alone control over what independent actors do? – be they one person, two people, or a large group?
Today’s ruling may well lead to more corporate and union election spending, but none of this money will go directly to candidates – so there is no possible corruption or even “appearance of corruption.” It will go instead to spreading information about candidates and issues. Such increases in spending should be welcome because studies have shown that more spending — more political communication — leads to better-informed voters.
In short, the Citizens United decision has strengthened both the First Amendment and American democracy.
For more background on the case, here’s a primer:
Today is the first Monday in October, and so is First Monday, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term. The Court already heard one argument – in the Citizens United campaign finance case – but it had been carried over from last year, so it doesn’t really count.
In any event, continuing its trend from last term, the Court has further front-loaded its caseload – with nearly 60 arguments on its docket already. Fortunately, unlike last year, we’ll see many blockbuster cases, including:
Cato has filed amicus briefs in many of these cases, so I will be paying extra-close attention.
Perhaps more importantly, we also have a new justice – and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court. While Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation was never in any serious doubt, she faced strong criticism on issues ranging from property rights and the use of foreign law in constitutional interpretation to the Ricci firefighters case and the “wise Latina” speeches that led people to question her commitment to judicial objectivity. Only time will tell what kind of justice Sotomayor will be now that she is unfettered from higher court precedent – and the first term is not necessarily indicative.
Key questions for the new Court’s dynamics are whether Sotomayor will challenge Justice Scalia intellectually and whether she will antagonize Justice Kennedy and thus push him to the right. We’ve already seen her make waves at the Citizens United reargument – questioning the scope of corporations’ constitutional rights – so it could be that she will decline to follow Justice Alito’s example and jump right into the Court’s rhetorical battles.
In short, it’s the first day of school and I’m excited.
The Citizens United case currently before the Supreme Court may radically reshape campaign finance law for years to come. Former FEC commissioner Bradley A. Smith spoke at a forum on the case a day before the rehearing before the high court.
According to Smith, who is also the founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, under current law, the government does have the power to ban certain books if those books are published by a corporation, as ruled by the Supreme Court in 1990.
I assume others have pointed this out already, but there’s something very odd about a Tuesday editorial in The New York Times arguing that campaign finance regulations that stifle the political speech of corporations must be upheld in the Citizens United case currently under consideration before the Supreme Court:
The question at the heart of one of the biggest Supreme Court cases this year is simple: What constitutional rights should corporations have? To us, as well as many legal scholars, former justices and, indeed, drafters of the Constitution, the answer is that their rights should be quite limited — far less than those of people.
In that case, surely it’s time to revisit some of the 20th century’s seminal free speech rulings. The idea that public figures cannot use libel law to squelch criticism unless they can prove an attack is intentionally or recklessly false, for instance, comes to us by way of New York Times Company v. Sullivan—a case in which the so-called “protected speech” was a paid advertisement run by a filthy corporation! And what about the celebrated Pentagon Papers case, in which the Court found that only in the most extreme cases can the government resort to “prior restraint” of speech? Why that’s New York Times Company v. United States. In both cases, of course, the speech in question had political significance—perhaps even the potential to affect elections. In the Pentagon Papers case, by the way, the counsel for the Times was famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who also argued Citizens United.
Don’t worry, though, it’s only corporations like The New York Times that will lose speech protections. If you, as a brave individual, want to say something controversial on your blog—though you’ll probably want to do it on a server you own personally, just in case—you’re totally in the clear. And if the federal government decides to sue, you’ll be totally free to use as much of your personal savings as you want to fight back.
I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court. The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign. Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.
After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand. They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum. Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United. That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.” The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!
A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case. It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws. And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate! (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)
Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion. That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech. Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.” The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.
One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.” While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”
Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery). I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.
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