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Is Fighting Corporate Corruption a Crack in the Supreme Court's Citizens United Ruling?

Montana ACLU backed a corporate campaign spending ban. National ACLU did not.
 
 
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Preventing corruption -- of political candidates by campaign donations, and of electoral debate by relentless advertising barrages -- may be emerging as a crack in the Supreme Court's deregulation of campaign finance, including its controversial Citizens United ruling unleashing corporations.

In the past month, two important court decisions have seen judges cite fighting corruption as a basis to uphold bans on corporate political activity. The first was a Montana Supreme Court ruling that upheld the state's century-old ban on all corporate electioneering. The second decision came just last week in San Diego, where a U.S. District Court upheld that city's decades-old ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates.

While the losing sides in these rulings are likely to appeal to higher federal courts, it is noteworthy that two separate courts have taken nuanced views of political campaigns and have found leeway under other Supreme Court rulings to bar corporate activity.

"I guess that was the point, wasn't it? Is it an uncrackable wall or not," said Elizabeth Griffling, who wrote the Montana ACLU  brief, speaking of the Citizens United ruling. "Two justices on the Montana Supreme Court felt it was impermeable and uncrackable. And the rest of the justices thought there was a little bit of giveaway there.

"And I argued in my brief that there was a little bit of room for exception to Citizens United in the context of a state who could show absolute evidence of corruption, who had adopted a statute in the face of such actual corruption."

Montana's ACLU broke from the national ACLU by arguing that there was a basis in other Supreme Court rulings to regulate corporate money to prevent corruption. When Citizens United was before the Supreme Court, the ACLU's national litigation office filed a brief saying that restricting independent corporate electioneering was unconstitutional. The national ACLU did not raise the corruption issue; it favored increasing corporate political speech.

"National ACLU has a pretty rigid policy: All speech is speech," Griffing said. "And I don't want to put words in national ACLU's mouth, but frequently they have taken an absolute policy -- kind of like what the U.S. Supreme Court has opted for in Citizens United, that the identity of the speaker doesn't really matter. Speech is speech."

But the recent rulings in Montana and San Diego disagreed by taking a more nuanced stance, holding that corporate political activities could be regulated under other Supreme Court rulings to prevent corruption of candidates and the overall political debate.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court focused on a narrow issue: the speech rights of political committees that were not officially tied to candidates. But in Montana and San Diego, the courts ruled that direct corporate donations to candidates, as well as corporate-sponsored electioneering including advertising barrages that end up dominating debate, were potentially corrupting and thus could be regulated.

These different corporate-backed political activities are treated differently under the law. In other words, as damaging as the Citizens United ruling has been -- unleashing the super PAC-funded media wars in 2012's first primaries -- it appears that other Supreme Court rulings still would allow other forms of corporate electioneering to be regulated. 

"Citizens United does not preclude the finding of a compelling state interest based on a record of actual corporate corruption," Montana's ACLU argued in its brief. "Corporate corruption can be found when the evidence indicates that the democratic process has been undermined through intentionally overwhelming the citizenry's voice and undermining the individual voter's confidence in the political process."

And in the San Diego ruling last week, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Irma E. Gonzales essentially agreed in the context of that case, which concerned corporate contributions to candidates. Her explanation quoted other prior Supreme Court rulings.

 
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