Citizens United Case

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In January 2008, Citizens United released a documentary that was critical of Senator Hilary Clinton and planned to run commercials of it at that time. However, through the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act which “prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech that is an ‘electioneering communication’ or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate”, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the commercials violated the act. The case was brought up to the Supreme Court and would be one of the more important cases about the First Amendment with a controversial decision.

On March 24, 2009, the Supreme Court took oral arguments from Malcolm Stewart, then Deputy Solicitor General representing the Federal Election Commission. He pointed out that with the current laws in place for the campaign-finance system, even a book that had the same content as the documentary would be banned. An even more disturbing point that Stewart made was that the government could ban a book that has just one sentence about candidate advocacy. This caused the Supreme Court to ask the parties to reargue the case due to two cases that Stewart used: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a statute that prohibited a corporation to use its funds for or against a political candidate, and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the decision that upheld the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold law. The reason for rearguing the case was to determine if they, the justices, should overrule those two decisions. The court reversed the ruling from the lower court and overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and partially overruled McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. The overall ruling was 5-4 with Justice Steven’s dissent that was joined by Justice Breyer, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor. Justice Kennedy, part of the majority opinion, believed that “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” In general, the Justices in the majority opinion believed that the case was based mostly on the First Amendment. Due to freedom of speech, corporations, whom the Justices believed were counted as individuals, could not be denied their right to voice out their opinion on running officials. The justices that favored the ruling brushed aside the warnings that might result in overturning the lower court’s decision. The dissenting justices warned that treating a corporation’s right to speech to be the same as an individual human was dangerous. However, eight of the justices agreed that Congress can require corporations to disclose how much they spent and to have disclaimers in the absence of facts. Chief Justice Roberts, one of whom that was part of the majority opinion, believed that “the important principles of judicial restraint and stare decisis implicated in this case” had to be addressed. He believed that overturning a past decision, such as Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, in certain circumstances were necessary. Roberts stated that cases such as segregation and minimum wage would not be as of what they are today if it were not for judicial activism. Justice Stevens wrote a passionate dissent that was joined by the other three Justices who opposed the ruling. He stated that the Court’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.” Because corporations and the general public could now spend unlimited money to promote or demote politicians who are running for office anytime, Stevens fears that it would cause an large disturbance in the election process. Although the majority opinion did not touch the laws about direct contribution to the candidates, part of the argument was whether a...
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