Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a 2010 opinion, in which the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) struck down the McCain-Feingold Act, a federal statute which prohibited corporations from funding broadcast communications addressing political candidates within sixty days of a general election. SCOTUS held that corporations, like people, are protected by the First Amendment, and that because a corporation must spend money to disseminate speech, the McCain-Feingold Act violated the First Amendment. Supporters of this polarizing decision (mostly those on the right) champion it as a victory for constitutional liberties, while its detractors (mostly those on the left) complain that it will corrupt the democratic process by allowing corporate coffers to inordinately influence elections.
While Citizens United’s influence will be readily apparent in the 2012 presidential race, its effects are also being felt on the state level. Last year, the Supreme Court of Montana held that Citizens United did not apply to Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, a century-old campaign finance law that limits corporate spending on elections. In its rationale, the Montana court cited examples in its state of the "corrupting influence of campaign contributions on elections." Making no effort to hide its disdain for Citizens United, the Montana court referred to SCOTUS's equation of corporations to individuals as “utter nonsense.”
The force of the Montana court’s rebuke to Citizens United was short-lived. Last week, in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, SCOTUS reversed the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling. Holding that “there can be no serious doubt” that Citizens United applies to Montana’s campaign finance laws, SCOTUS struck down Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act.
It looks like Citizens United is here to stay ... at least for awhile. Four SCOTUS Justices dissented in Bullock, three of whom also dissented in Citizens United. (The fourth dissenting Justice in Bullock, Elena Kagan, was not on the bench in 2010 when Citizens United was decided. Justice Kagan’s predecessor, Justice John Paul Stephens, was the fourth dissenter in Citizens United.) With SCOTUS so closely divided over a such an incendiary issue, it’s possible that the outcome of the upcoming Presidential Election – which will determine future SCOTUS appointees – will determine the fate of Citizens United. Stay tuned.