Money and Democracy

Editorial cartoon by Jeff Fitzsimmons in the Arizona Daily Star weighing the factors behind the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. (2012).
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Faculty and staff of CUNY School of Law's Economic Justice Project and Hunter College's Welfare Rights Initiative.  CUNY School of Law students help CUNY undergraduates fight to keep their public assistance benefits and to advance their right to pursue college education.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003.

In our capitalist economy money and democracy are intimately entwined, particularly in campaign finance where it is important to protect the integrity of the electoral process against undue economic influence. The first federal effort to establish campaign finance reform was the Tillman Act (1907), which prevented corporations and national banks from subsidizing federal campaigns. Yet, the Tillman Act and later the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which prohibited corporations and labor unions from contributing financially to federal elections, were largely bypassed by the formation of political action committees (PAC), fundraising arms of interest groups.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971 required full reporting of campaign contributions and limited spending on media advertisements. Following the Watergate affair, Congress substantially broadened FECA to restrict financial contributions to candidates and established an independent regulatory body to enforce the statute. However, both Republican and Democratic senators promptly challenged the legislation in Buckley v. Valeo (1975), where the Court first ruled that money was speech protected by the First Amendment. The Court allowed limits on an individual’s contributions to political campaigns and candidates, but eliminated any limits on expenditures by candidates spending their own funds on their own election or re-election.

In the next 25 years, the Court decided 20 or so cases involving campaign finance, many of which were controversial. But the most controversial case occurred in 2010 when a sharply divided Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) that corporations could spend without limit on candidate elections. In the view of the Court majority, the First Amendment free-speech protections applied equally to persons and corporate “persons.” Dissenting, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens took issue with the equating of a corporation with a human being when he wrote, “Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.” The Court’s decision continues to be contentious, as 16 states have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling.

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