Campaign Money Case Could Propel More Deregulation

06.26.12 | Bob Price

The high court on Monday reaffirmed its controversial Citizens United decision from 2010, following a challenge to a Montana law that prohibited corporate spending in elections. But the decision in the Montana case probably will mean a push for more campaign-finance deregulation.

In the middle of a presidential race already brimming with cash from "super" political committees, the decision leaves no ambiguity that the practice can continue - benefiting the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney the most. Super PACs so far have spent tens of millions of dollars on the presidential election.

The ruling was a victory for those who support few restrictions, saying the First Amendment affords them the right to spend as much as they want to support or defeat a candidate. Reformers vowed to press on, hoping to craft new laws to curb what they call the corrupting influence of money in politics.

"The Supreme Court today has left standing the disastrous Citizens United decision and the enormous damage it is doing to our democracy and political system," Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said Monday.

The ruling, more importantly, leaves the campaign finance system with fewer restrictions on how money may be spent in politics. It could mean that advocates of deregulation will push for stripping away existing limits on direct contributions to candidates, or turning back disclosure laws some call anathema to anonymous speech.

Citizens United and a handful of other recent federal court decisions have collectively wiped out many campaign finance regulations born out of the Watergate era and the early 2000s.

Election law observers had awaited Monday's decision, which could have seen the court revisit Citizens United.

The Montana case could give the Supreme Court "an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates' allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a dissenter in Citizens United, said in granting a February stay of the Montana Supreme Court's decision upholding the state's century-old law.

Instead, the opposite happened: The high court did not revisit Citizens United. And campaign finance experts said the court's new decision makes it clear that states must follow it.

"Unless there is a change in the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Citizens United decision is alive and well, and the states are obligated to follow it," said Robert Kelner, an election law expert at the law firm Covington & Burling.

It's a legal paradigm that Michael Toner, a Washington election lawyer at Wiley Rein, said will endure beyond November.

"It's clear that the Citizens United decision remains the law of the land at the federal level and in all 50 states," Toner said, "and that Citizens United will remain the law of the land through the presidential election."