Citizens United, and Citizens' Elections

The US Supreme Court today hears oral arguments in Citizens United v FEC. It's an unusual time for the US Supreme Court to hear arguments (their term doesn't start until next month), but Citizens United is not a typical case. The Court heard arguments last Spring in the case and then took the unusual step of asking for additional arguments on issues not raised by the parties. This could be the case where the US Supreme Court takes off on a new activist agenda in the area of campaign finance.

Many have weighed in on the possible outcome, and ICPR signed onto an amicus brief (PDF) urging the Court to consider the impact of their decision on judicial elections. Much of the commentary has focused on the possibility that the Court will strike down a century of jurisprudence that forbids corporations to make campaign donations. But there are a lot of other ways the Court could rule, which also would have a dramatic impact on how campaigns are conducted, and how the public perceives the honesty of the electoral process.

At issue is whether an organization can promote a commercial enterprise during the weeks right before an election, when that commercial enterprise is focused squarely on a candidate in the election. Citizens United produced "Hillary: The Movie," a documentary critical of then-US Sen. and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and sought to promote the movie through TV commercials. The movie itself was available on a pay-per-view basis. The FEC objected, finding that the ads to promote the movie violated the electioneering communications provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act.

How far the Court uses this case to strike down portions of McCain-Feingold will indicate how activist the Court has become. The Court could find merely that the FEC was mistaken that the electioneering communications provision covered the ads. (The electioneering communications provision deals with some ads that mention candidates in the 60 days before a General Election) The Court could find that the electioneering communications provision is unconstitutional in some circumstances, or perhaps in all circumstances. At an extreme, the Court could find, as some have predicted, that corporations have a constitutional right to participate in elections by making campaign contributions.

How the Court rules will clearly have a significant impact on how states can ensure the integrity of elections by regulating campaign finances. While striking the prohibition on corporate contributions is indeed the worst case scenario, it would have little impact in Illinois, where corporations can and do already make large (indeed, unlimited) contributions. But Illinois also has an electioneering communications provision and so a ruling in that area will affect Illinois. No matter how the Court rules, states around the nation, including Illinois, will have to take stock of their laws and make changes to assure the public that elections are fair and honest.