A constellation of independent groups is poised to spend $1 billion or more on the 2012 elections, much of it raised in secret from billionaires and corporations. The spending is made possible in part by the court’s 2010 decision in
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
, which found that companies and unions have a free-speech right to donate unlimited amounts for and against candidates.
This atmosphere of fevered spending had triggered hopes among critics that the court might reconsider Citizens United. But Monday’s decision appears to scuttle any chance of that, at least for now.
Obama administration spokesman Eric Schultz said the White House was “disappointed.”
“Citizens United mistakenly overruled long-standing cases that protected the fairness and integrity of elections,” Schultz said. “Unfortunately, the court today missed an opportunity to correct that mistake.”
The case involved a Montana law forbidding corporate political spending. The law dated to 1912, when “copper kings” and other mining barons largely controlled the state’s politics. The Montana Supreme Court said that, even after Citizens United, the legacy of corruption and other factors unique to Montana justified a ban on spending by corporations regulated by the state.
But the same five justices who formed the majority in Citizens United said in an unsigned opinion that Montana’s arguments “either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.” The decision had the effect of overturning Montana’s law.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer penned a short dissent for the minority, writing that “Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”
Justice Elena Kagan — who argued the Citizens United case as Obama’s solicitor general — joined Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor in the dissent. Although Breyer and Ginsburg said in February that the court should use the case to revisit Citizens United, Breyer wrote Monday that he did “not see a significant possibility of reconsideration” by the majority.
Monday’s decision drew strong condemnations from activists who favor tougher limits on money in politics and effusive praise from those opposed to such regulations.
“Citizens and the nation are not going to accept the Supreme Court-imposed campaign finance system that allows our government to be auctioned off to billionaires, millionaires, corporate funders and other special interests,” said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer, a longtime activist who helped draft many of the nation’s post-Watergate election laws.