On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court overturned a six decade-long prohibition against spending corporate and union treasury money to directly campaign for or against federal candidates. Corporations and unions have been prohibited from spending money from their general funds on express advocacy at the federal level since 1947, when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act.
Prohibiting corporations and unions from using treasury money to influence elections was previously upheld by the Supreme Court in Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce (1990), and most recently in McConnell v. FEC (2003) after the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). In McConnell, the Court noted that, "Congress' power to prohibit corporations and unions from using funds in their treasuries to finance advertisements expressly advocating the election or defeat of candidates in federal elections has been firmly embedded in our law."
By striking down the ban on express political advocacy by corporations and unions, the Court has greatly increased the likelihood of spending by such groups to influence federal campaigns. It has also opened the door to the corrupting influence that flows from such expenditures, as corporations and unions use their spending, or the threat or promise of such spending, as a means to influence decision-making by Congress. Not surprisingly, Election 2010 broke all previous records for corporate spending - not just in federal races, but in state races, too, in Maine and all around the country.
While most of the decision is bad news for reform-minded Americans, there was one positive piece of the decision. The Court upheld disclosure requirements, saying:
"With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens withthe information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation'spolitical speech advances the corporation's interest inmaking profits, and citizens can see whether elected offi-cials are "'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests." 540 U. S., at 259 (opinion of SCALIA, J.); see MCFL, supra, at 261. The First Amendment protects political speech;and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."
- Download Citizens United decision (PDF)
- Background on the case, Brennan Center for Justice
- Watch a short video from The Story of Stuff - The Story of Citizens United v. FEC (2011)