By Larry Howell*
He is said to have bought legislatures and judges as other men buy food and raiment. By his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell.
[T]he Copper Kings are a long time gone to their tombs.
—District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock2
Recognized by even its strong supporters as “one of the most divisive decisions” by the United States Supreme Court in years,3 Citizens United v. FEC4 was met with a wave of criticism and predictions of dire consequences for the country’s political system. The unusually harsh reaction began in the dissenting opinion by four justices, who bluntly stated that the decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation,” as well as “do damage” to the legitimacy of the Supreme Court as an institution.5
President Barack Obama amplified that theme during his 2010 State of the Union address when he described Citizens United as pro-corporate judicial activism while six justices, including three who signed the 5–4 majority opinion,6 sat in the audience front and center. “With all due deference to separation of powers,” Obama told the Justices, the Congress, and the Nation, “last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.”7 Obama’s unusually direct criticism received even more attention because Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who voted with the majority in Citizens United, reacted by vigorously shaking his head and muttering “not true, not true” while millions read his lips at home.8
While the accuracy of the President’s floodgates prediction, particularly concerning foreign corporations, cannot be fully verified until the 2012 election campaigns heat up next year, no one can dispute the truth of his statement that Citizens United overturned decades of settled law. By holding that corporations and unions have the right under the free-speech clause of the First Amendment to make unlimited independent expenditures in campaigns for elected office, the Supreme Court not only struck down a federal statute9 and overturned two of its own key campaign-finance decisions,10 it also effectively struck down laws in 24 states that had long banned or restricted independent corporate expenditures.11 Continue reading