Tag: federal election commission

Citizens United at Two

The Supreme Court decided Citizens United two years ago this week. The complaints about the ruling that have emerged since are often bizarre and misrepresent much of the landmark ruling’s import. Here’s what the case was about.

Almost nowhere in the complaints about the Citizens United ruling will you hear that the case decided that certain books or Pay-per-View broadcasts could no longer be banned by the Federal Election Commission.

Former FEC commissioner Bradley A. Smith further detailed the breathtaking arguments made by the government during the initial oral argument.

(And here’s more from attorney James Bopp, Jr. on the ultimate ruling.)

Since Citizens United, complaints from Common Cause and occupiers of various parks across the United States tend to focus on corporate personhood, the scourge of SuperPACs and at least one group’s troubling idea to amend the Constitution so that—once and for all—“campaign spending is not a form of speech protected under the First Amendment.”

The Success of SpeechNow

This morning the United States Supreme Court refused to consider the appeal in the case of SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission. That’s a shame.

I have written before about the SpeechNow case. Here’s a brief summary of the issues. The judiciary has long held that individuals could spend as much as they wished on elections. The traditional rationale for restricting spending – preventing corruption of the political process – did not apply to spending by individuals. If that is true, the SpeechNow plaintiffs wondered why individuals joined in a group (and independent of the candidates and parties) should not have the same freedom from restrictions.

It turned out, thanks to Citizens United, that individuals did have that right to be free of limits on campaign spending as recognized by a federal court. That same court maintained, however, that the associated individuals still had to register with the Federal Election Commission as a “political committee.” The paperwork and related rules complicate and discourage participating in politics. By refusing to hear SpeechNow’s appeal, the Supreme Court has decided that these associations must register with the government before engaging in politics.

Nonetheless, the SpeechNow plaintiff deserve our thanks. They have gotten a lot more than “half a loaf” out of their effort. True, the government is still too involved in electoral speech, but the limits on political speech and association have been invalidated. That is a real achievement and more evidence that the long era of restrictions on campaign finance is drawing to a close.

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

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.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

Reviving the First Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments this week in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  The case features the Federal Election Commission ruling that for the group Citizens United to run its documentary on Hillary Clinton would violate McCain-Feingold.  The decision was a constitutional travesty, since this is precisely the sort of political speech that constitutes the core of the First Amendment.

Theodore B. Olson has given us a taste in the Wall Street Journal of the argument that he will be making before the Court tomorrow:

The idea that corporate and union speech is somehow inherently corrupting is nonsense. Most corporations are small businesses, and they have every right to speak out when a candidate threatens the welfare of their employees or shareholders.

Time after time the Supreme Court has recognized that corporations enjoy full First Amendment protections. One of the most revered First Amendment precedents is New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which afforded publishers important constitutional safeguards in libel cases. Any decision that determines that corporations have less protection than individuals under the First Amendment would threaten the very institutions we depend upon to keep us informed. This may be why Citizens United is supported by such diverse allies as the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the National Rifle Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Persons of modest means often band together to speak through ideological corporations. That speech may not be silenced because of speculation that a few large entities might speak too loudly, or because some corporations may earn large profits. The First Amendment does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in order somehow to equalize participation in public debate.

Tomorrow’s case is not about Citizens United. It is about the rights of all persons—individuals, associations, corporations and unions—to speak freely. And it is about our right to hear those voices and to judge for ourselves who has the soundest message.

Hillary: The Movie

The Supreme Court is soon to hear a case that may drastically roll back campaign finance regulation in the United States:

The case involves “Hillary: The Movie,” a mix of advocacy journalism and political commentary that is a relentlessly negative look at Mrs. Clinton’s character and career. The documentary was made by a conservative advocacy group called Citizens United, which lost a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission seeking permission to distribute it on a video-on-demand service. The film is available on the Internet and on DVD. The issue was that the McCain-Feingold law bans corporate money being used for electioneering.

The right position for the Court is that McCain-Feingold, and all other campaign finance regulation, constitutes unconstitutional limitation on free speech. This means reversing the Court’s 1974 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which held that government limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional but limits on contributions were not.

This distinction is meaningless. If it is OK for a millionaire to spend his own money promoting his own campaign, why can he not give that money to someone else, who might be a more effective advocate for that millionaire’s views, so that this other person can run for office?

More broadly, campaign finance regulation is thought control: it takes a position on whether money should influence political outcomes. Whether or not one agrees, this is only one possible view, and freedom of speech is meant to prevent government from promoting or discouraging particular points of view.

It would be a brave step for Court to reverse Buckley, but it is the right thing to do.

For more background on the case, watch this:

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

The Roberts Revolution to Come

As I mentioned yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many people by ordering a reargument in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the Court called for the parties to the case to address the question of overruling Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1989.  The state of Michigan had prohibited corporations from spending money on electoral speech. In the case in question, the Chamber of Commerce wished to pay for an advertisement backing a candidate for the House of Representatives. The Chamber took this action on its own and not in tandem with the candidate or his party.  Paying for the ad was a felony under Michigan law.

A majority of the Court in 1989 said the Michigan law did not violate the First Amendment. However, the majority had a problem. Previous cases permitted limits on funding electoral speech only in pursuit of a compelling state interest: the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The Court had also ruled that independent spending by groups could not corrupt candidates.

So the majority needed a novel rationale for approving Michigan’s suppression of speech. The majority concluded that speech funded by corporations would distort the democratic process and that the state could prohibits such outlays to prevent harms done by “immense wealth.” In other words, the Austin majority tried to redefine “corruption” as “inequality of influence.” That revision had its own set of problems. Buckely v. Valeo, the Ur-decision in campaign finance, had excluded equality as a compelling state interest justifying regulation of campaign finance.

It is easy to see why the Buckley Court had rejected equality of influence as a reason for restricting political speech. Imagine Congress could prohibit speech that had “too much influence.” But how could that be determined? A majority in Congress would be tempted to suppress speech that threatened the power of that majority.  Paradoxically, the equality rationale would strengthen those who already held power while vitiating representative government. The First Amendment tries to prevent that outcome.

In last year’s decision in Davis v. FEC, the Court again rejected the equality rationale for campaign finance laws.  More and more the Austin decision is looking like bad law.

Justices Kennedy and Scalia, both current members of the Court, wrote dissents in Austin. Justice Thomas has called for Austin to be overruled in other contexts.  Neither Justices Roberts nor Alito is likely to vote to uphold Austin (or the relevant parts of McConnell v. FEC for that matter). But it would seem that either or both of them were unwilling to strike down a precedent without a formal hearing. That hearing will come on September 9 with a decision expected by Thanksgiving.

Almost six years after the Court utterly refused to defend free speech in McConnell v. FEC, the Roberts Court may be ready to vindicate the First Amendment against its accusers in Congress and elsewhere.

Citizens United Case to Be Reargued in Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to decide in its current term the campaign finance case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Instead, the Court issued an order that the case should be reargued. The parties in the reargument should address the question of whether the Court should overrule two of its earlier decisions. In the Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Court held that state legislatures may prohibit spending by businesses on electoral speech. In McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the Court validated limitations on electoral speech in McCain-Feingold.

The Court could have decided Citizens United on relatively narrow grounds. Instead, it has explicitly drawn into question two of its precedents upholding limitations on political speech. It seems likely that five members of the Court are prepared to overrule both precedents, but at least one justice was unwilling to do so without a formal argument.

We appear to be on the brink of a significant liberalization of campaign finance law.

For more on this important case, see below: