January 21, 2010
The Court majority’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a continuation of the judicial activism on election finance that began in earnest in the 1970s and substantially expands the scope of this policymaking by unelected and unaccountable judges for life.
Boiled down to its essence, five of the nine justices ruled that money is speech, corporations are people, public offices are commodities and elections are the marketplace where these commodities are bought and sold. The majority opinion asserts the appearance of big money influence over elections will not cause the public to lose confidence in the democratic process. The cluelessness demonstrated by such a declaration begs the question: What planet do these justices live on?
This ruling further chips away at both the letter and spirit of the federal McCain-Feingold law and favors the corrupt status quo in national politics. The five justices overlooked the corrupting effects of allowing massive sums of wealth to be brought to bear in election campaigns. Their ruling throws century-old law on the use of corporate and labor union treasury funds to influence elections on the scrap heap.
On the other hand, a super-majority of justices upheld the constitutionality of disclosing money spent on elections. This leaves the door open to meaningful disclosure reform at the federal and state levels.
Unaddressed in this case and untouched by today’s ruling are public financing programs like the one just enacted for state Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin. Such programs remain on sound constitutional footing and now become all the more important as one of the few remaining tools to guard against political corruption and ensure the voices of ordinary citizens are heard.
It is also important to note that this case involved a challenge to a federal law, not any state law in Wisconsin. However, today’s ruling does have state-law implications, which we will be assessing in the days and weeks to come.