The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a Montana state law prohibiting corporate contributions to candidates or political parties. Iowa’s current restrictions on corporate money in elections should not be affected by the ruling, however.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in American Tradition Partnership Inc. v. Bullock is here (pdf), along with a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer. Lyle Denniston summarized today’s 5-4 decision at the SCOTUS blog:
Ordinarily, the Supreme Court does not decide a case until after it has accepted it for full-scale review, receives written legal arguments, and then holds a public hearing. Now and then, and perhaps as many as nine or ten times each Term, the Court disposes of a case without those formalities: it decides the case very soon after getting the case, usually indicating that the outcome was so predictable that there was no need to engage in full-dress proceedings. That speeded-up procedure is what the Court did on Monday in this case, by a 5-4 vote. The result was to overturn a Montana Supreme Court decision upholding a 1912 voter-approved ban on corporations’ spending of their own money on political campaigns in that state. The Court majority found that state court ruling obviously in conflict with a decision the Supreme Court had issued in January 2010 striking down a similar ban in federal law against corporate spending on politics. The four Justices in dissent conceded that the Supreme Court majority was not ready to take a new look at that 2010 decision, even in a case in which a state’s highest court had found that the state had a history of corrupt corporate influence in its political life.
The brief majority opinion representing Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia reads in part, “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does. See U. S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2. Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.” There appears to be no hope of convincing the Supreme Court to take another look at this issue until one or more new justices are appointed.
Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor joined in Breyer’s dissent, which reads in part,
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court concluded that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” […] I disagree with the Court’s holding for the reasons expressed in Justice Stevens’ dissent in that case. As Justice Stevens explained, “technically independent expenditures can be corrupting in much the same way as direct contributions.” […]
Moreover, even if I were to accept Citizens United, this Court’s legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana. Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the State had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations. […] Thus, 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.
I wondered whether today’s Supreme Court ruling would affect Iowa’s ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates and political parties. Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, provided this comment after reviewing American Tradition Partnership Inc. v. Bullock.
Today, the United States Supreme Court declined to reconsider its holding in Citizens United. The Court reiterated it is unconstitutional for states to prohibit independent expenditures by corporations. Iowa amended its campaign finance laws shortly after the Citizens United decision in 2010 to allow corporations, insurance companies, banks and credit unions to make independent expenditures for communications that expressly advocate in favor or against candidates and ballot issues. An expenditure is ‘independent’ if it is made without the prior approval or coordination with a candidate, candidate’s committee or a ballot issue committee. Because Iowa’s campaign finance laws have already been amended to conform with the Citizens United decision, today’s ruling by the United States Supreme Court does not change anything in Iowa.
Iowa was the first state to alter its campaign finance rules following the Citizens United ruling. Senate File 2354 passed the Iowa House and Senate unanimously in March 2010. Bleeding Heartland summarized its key provisions here. Iowa Right to Life is challenging the constitutionality of Iowa’s law in federal court but failed to block its enforcement for the 2010 election campaign. In December 2011, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s interpretation of this law, which was a disputed point in Iowa Right to Life’s federal case. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt dismissed Iowa Right to Life’s lawsuit earlier this year, but the group has appealed to the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Speaking to me by phone, Iowa Senate State Government Committee Chair Jeff Danielson called today “another dark day in American politics.” He agreed with Tooker that Iowa’s 2010 law is sound and captured as much disclosure as possible. However, Danielson said the “real issue is not what states were allowed to require for disclosure.” The more important issue is that citizens cannot restrict the “secret, shadowy, special-interest money.” Danielson added, “I’m not surprised by the decision, but I’m deeply disappointed, because democracy doesn’t work in the dark.” He advocates a “nationwide grassroots effort to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United” as the only way to limit “unfettered corporate cash” in elections. Given how difficult it is to amend the U.S. constitution, I believe there’s a better chance of the high court reversing itself on this issue in the coming years, particularly if President Barack Obama is re-elected.
The Iowa Senate released this written statement from Danielson today:
“The U.S. Supreme Court today missed an opportunity to respond to the majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents who all agree that corporations are not citizens and that unlimited corporate political spending is bad for our democracy.
“It is time for Congress to positively respond to the request made by the Iowa Senate this spring when we overwhelmingly approved Senate Resolution 113, which calls for the enactment of ‘appropriate legislation to regulate and restrict corporate participation in election campaigns.’
“Corporations are not people, regardless of what five justices of the Supreme Court claim. Congress must take action to protect our democracy from being overwhelmed by a flood of corporate cash.”
Senator Danielson of Blackhawk is the chair of the Senate State Government Committee and was the sponsor of Senate Resolution 113.
I have also sought comment from Iowa House State Government Committee Chair Peter Cownie. At this writing, he has not responded. Cownie’s committee did not act on a campaign finance bill the Iowa Senate approved during the 2012 legislative session. Senate File 2236 would have closed a loophole that allows super-PACs, 501(c)4 groups and 501(c)6 groups to avoid disclosing their donors. The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board proposed that “campaign transparency” bill, which passed the Iowa Senate by 31 votes to 19. All 26 Senate Democrats supported that bill, joined by Republicans Merlin Bartz, Nancy Boettger, Shawn Hamerlinck, Tim Kapucian, and Pat Ward (roll call). Though Cownie told a reporter he was “willing to look at this” proposal, Senate File 2236 did not receive even a subcommittee hearing in the House committee Cownie chairs.
Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.