Zera's Blog

A Citizen's View from Main Street

Citizens United


John Paul Stevens, U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Justice John Paul Stevens

If you’re short on time, I have a much shorter blog entry here.

Conservative activist judges defied precedent and judicial restraint to give unrestrained political speech to corporate entities and special interests without regard for the chilling effect on free speech for natural citizens. Roberts and Alito violated some of the very principles they claimed (during their confirmation hearings) made a good judge.

There are so many flaws in this decision that it is hard to condense the dissent. In a scathing dissent, Justice Stevens wrote:

The basic premise underlying the Court’s ruling is its iteration, and constant reiteration, of the proposition that the First Amendment bars regulatory distinctions based on a speaker’s identity, including its “identity” as a corporation. While that glittering generality has rhetorical appeal, it is not a correct statement of the law.

It does not even resolve the specific question whether Citizens United may be required to finance some of its messages with the money in its PAC. The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

The majority’s approach to corporate electioneering marks a dramatic break from our past. Congress has placed special limitations on campaign spending by corporations ever since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907. We have unanimously concluded that this “reflects a permissible assessment of the dangers posed by those entities to the electoral process,” and have accepted the “legislative judgment that the special characteristics of the corporate structure require particularly careful regulation,”. The Court today rejects a century of history when it treats the distinction between corporate and individual campaign spending as an invidious novelty born of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce. Relying largely on individual dissenting opinions, the majority blazes through our precedents, overruling or disavowing a body of case law.

The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.

Scope of the Case

The first reason is that the question was not properly brought before us. In declaring §203 of BCRA facially unconstitutional on the ground that corporations’ electoral expenditures may not be regulated any more stringently than those of individuals, the majority decides this case on a basis relinquished below, not included in the questions presented to us by the litigants, and argued here only in response to the Court’s invitation. This procedure is unusual and inadvisable for a court. Our colleagues’ suggestion that “we are asked to reconsider Austin and, in effect, McConnell,” would be more accurate if rephrased to state that “we have asked ourselves” to reconsider those cases.

The jurisdictional statement never so much as cited Austin, the key case the majority today overrules. And not one of the questions presented suggested that Citizens United was surreptitiously raising the facial challenge to §203 that it previously agreed to dismiss. In fact, not one of those questions raised an issue based on Citizens United’s corporate status. Moreover, even in its merits briefing, when Citizens United injected its request to overrule Austin, it never sought a declaration that §203 was facially unconstitutional as to all corporations and unions; instead it argued only that the statute could not be applied to it because it was “funded overwhelmingly by individuals.”

it is “only in the most exceptional cases” that we will consider issues outside the questions presented, Stone v. Powell. The appellant in this case did not so much as assert an exceptional circumstance, and one searches the majority opinion in vain for the mention of any. That is unsurprising, for none exists.

Essentially, five Justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.

As-Applied and Facial Challenges

This Court has repeatedly emphasized in recent years that “[f]acial challenges are disfavored. By declaring §203 facially unconstitutional, our colleagues have turned an as-applied challenge into a facial challenge, in defiance of this principle. This is not merely a technical defect in the Court’s decision. The unnecessary resort to a facial inquiry “run[s] contrary to the fundamental principle of judicial restraint that courts should neither anticipate a question of constitutional law in advance of the necessity of deciding it nor formulate a rule of constitutional law broader than is required by the precise facts to which it is to be applied.”. Scanting that principle “threaten[s] to short circuit the democratic process by preventing laws embodying the will of the people from being implemented in a manner consistent with the Constitution.” These concerns are heightened when judges overrule settled doctrine upon which the legislature has relied. The Court operates with a sledge hammer rather than a scalpel when it strikes down one of Congress’ most significant efforts to regulate the role that corporations and unions play in electoral politics. It compounds the offense by implicitly striking down a great many state laws as well.

The problem goes still deeper, for the Court does all of this on the basis of pure speculation.

By reinstating a claim that Citizens United abandoned, the Court gives it a perverse litigating advantage over its adversary, which was deprived of the opportunity to gather and present information necessary to its rebuttal.

“Claims of facial invalidity often rest on speculation,” and consequently “raise the risk of premature interpretation of statutes on the basis of factually barebones records.” In this case, the record is not simply incomplete or unsatisfactory; it is nonexistent. Congress crafted BCRA in response to a virtual mountain of research on the corruption that previous legislation had failed to avert. The Court now negates Congress’ efforts without a shred of evidence on how §203 or its state-law counterparts have been affecting any entity other than Citizens United.

Faced with this gaping empirical hole, the majority throws up its hands. … While tacitly acknowledging that some applications of §203 might be found constitutional, the majority thus posits a future in which novel First Amendment standards must be devised on an ad hoc basis, and then leaps from this unfounded prediction to the unfounded conclusion that such complexity counsels the abandonment of all normal restraint. Yet it is a pervasive feature of regulatory systems that unanticipated events, such as new technologies, may raise some unanticipated difficulties at the margins. The fluid nature of electioneering communications does not make this case special. The fact that a Court can hypothesize situations in which a statute might, at some point down the line, pose some unforeseen as-applied problems, does not come close to meeting the standard for a facial challenge.

The majority suggests that a facial ruling is necessary because anything less would chill too much protected speech. In addition to begging the question what types of corporate spending are constitutionally protected and to what extent, this claim rests on the assertion that some significant number of corporations have been cowed into quiescence by FEC “‘censor[ship].’” That assertion is unsubstantiated, and it is hard to square with practical experience. It is particularly hard to square with the legal landscape following WRTL, which held that a corporate communication could be regulated under §203 only if it was “susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”

The whole point of this test was to make §203 as simple and speech-protective as possible. The Court does not explain how, in the span of a single election cycle, it has determined THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s project to be a failure. In this respect, too, the majority’s critique of line-drawing collapses into a critique of the as-applied review method generally.

There is no legitimate basis for resurrecting a facial challenge that dropped out of this case 20 months ago.

Narrower Grounds

It is all the more distressing that our colleagues have manufactured a facial challenge, because the parties have advanced numerous ways to resolve the case that would facilitate electioneering by nonprofit advocacy corporations such as Citizens United, without toppling statutes and precedents. Which is to say, the majority has transgressed yet another “cardinal” principle of the judicial process: “[I]f it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more,”

Consider just three of the narrower grounds of decision that the majority has bypassed. First, the Court could have ruled, on statutory grounds, that a feature-length film distributed through video-on-demand does not qualify as an “electioneering communication” under §203 of BCRA.

Second, the Court could have expanded the MCFL exemption to cover §501(c)(4) nonprofits that accept only a de minimis amount of money from for-profit corporations. Citizens United professes to be such a group: Its brief says it “is funded predominantly by donations from individuals who support [its] ideological message.”

Finally, let us not forget Citizens United’s as-applied constitutional challenge. Precisely because Citizens United looks so much like the MCFL organizations we have exempted from regulation, while a feature-length video-on-demand film looks so unlike the types of electoral advocacy Congress has found deserving of regulation, this challenge is a substantial one. As the appellant’s own arguments show, the Court could have easily limited the breadth of its constitutional holding had it declined to adopt the novel notion that speakers and speech acts must always be treated identically-and always spared expenditures restrictions-in the political realm. Yet the Court nonetheless turns its back on the as-applied review process that has been a staple of campaign finance litigation since Buckley v. Valeo, and that was affirmed and expanded just two Terms ago in WRTL.

This brief tour of alternative grounds on which the case could have been decided is not meant to show that any of these grounds is ideal, though each is perfectly “valid,”. It is meant to show that there were principled, narrower paths that a Court that was serious about judicial restraint could have taken. There was also the straightforward path: applying Austin and McConnell, just as the District Court did in holding that the funding of Citizens United’s film can be regulated under them. The only thing preventing the majority from affirming the District Court, or adopting a narrower ground that would retain Austin, is its disdain for Austin.

The final principle of judicial process that the majority violates is the most transparent: stare decisis. … But if this principle is to do any meaningful work in supporting the rule of law, it must at least demand a significant justification, beyond the preferences of five Justices, for overturning settled doctrine. “[A] decision to overrule should rest on some special reason over and above the belief that a prior case was wrongly decided.” No such justification exists in this case, and to the contrary there are powerful prudential reasons to keep faith with our precedents.

The Court’s central argument for why stare decisis ought to be trumped is that it does not like Austin. The Court proclaims that “Austin is undermined by experience since its announcement.” This is a curious claim to make in a case that lacks a developed record. The majority has no empirical evidence with which to substantiate the claim; we just have its ipse dixit that the real world has not been kind to Austin. Nor does the majority bother to specify in what sense Austin has been “undermined.” Instead it treats the reader to a string of non sequiturs: “Our Nation’s speech dynamic is changing,” “[s]peakers have become adept at presenting citizens with sound bites, talking points, and scripted messages,” ibid.; “[c]orporations … do not have monolithic views,” ibid. How any of these ruminations weakens the force of stare decisis, escapes my comprehension.

Although the majority opinion spends several pages making these surprising arguments, it says almost nothing about the standard considerations we have used to determine stare decisis value, such as the antiquity of the precedent, the workability of its legal rule, and the reliance interests at stake. It is also conspicuously silent about McConnell, even though the McConnell Court’s decision to uphold BCRA §203 relied not only on the antidistortion logic of Austin but also on the statute’s historical pedigree, and the need to preserve the integrity of federal campaigns.

Pulling out the rug beneath Congress after affirming the constitutionality of §203 six years ago shows great disrespect for a coequal branch.

Consider just one example of the distortions that will follow: Political parties are barred under BCRA from soliciting or spending “soft money,” funds that are not subject to the statute’s disclosure requirements or its source and amount limitations. Going forward, corporations and unions will be free to spend as much general treasury money as they wish on ads that support or attack specific candidates, whereas national parties will not be able to spend a dime of soft money on ads of any kind. The Court’s ruling thus dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions-and the narrow interests they represent-vis-á-vis the role of political parties-and the broad coalitions they represent-in determining who will hold public office.

In fact, no one has argued to us that Austin’s rule has proved impracticable, and not a single for-profit corporation, union, or State has asked us to overrule it. Quite to the contrary, leading groups representing the business community, organized labor, and the nonprofit sector, together with more than half of the States, urge that we preserve Austin.

In the end, the Court’s rejection of Austin and McConnell comes down to nothing more than its disagreement with their results. Virtually every one of its arguments was made and rejected in those cases, and the majority opinion is essentially an amalgamation of resuscitated dissents. The only relevant thing that has changed since Austin and McConnell is the composition of this Court.
Today’s ruling thus strikes at the vitals of stare decisis, “the means by which we ensure that the law will not merely change erratically, but will develop in a principled and intelligible fashion” that “permits society to presume that bedrock principles are founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals.”

Neither Austin nor McConnell held or implied that corporations may be silenced; the FEC is not a “censor”; and in the years since these cases were decided, corporations have continued to play a major role in the national dialogue. Laws such as §203 target a class of communications that is especially likely to corrupt the political process, that is at least one degree removed from the views of individual citizens, and that may not even reflect the views of those who pay for it. Such laws burden political speech, and that is always a serious matter, demanding careful scrutiny. But the majority’s incessant talk of a “ban” aims at a straw man.

CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION

The dissent begins on page 88. It should be required reading. There is so much more.

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1 Comment »

  1. [...] Citizens United [...]

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