Citizens UnitedThe Supreme Court examined the Arizona immigration law in minute detail, but when it came to revisiting the damage caused by its own handiwork in the 2010 Citizens United case, it couldn’t be bothered. In a single dismissive paragraph on Monday, the court’s conservative majority refused to allow Montana or any other state to impose limits on corporate election spending and wouldn’t even entertain arguments on the subject.
It is not as if those five justices could be unaware of the effects of Citizens United, and of the various court and administrative decisions that followed it. They could hardly have missed the $300 million in outside spending that deluged the 2010 Congressional elections or the reports showing that more than $1 billion will be spent by outside groups on Republican candidates this year, overwhelming the competition.
They might also have seen that many of the biggest donations are secret, given to tax-free advocacy groups in defiance even of the admonition in Citizens United that independent contributions should be disclosed.
If the justices were at all concerned about these developments, they could have used the Montana case to revisit their decision and rein in its disastrous effects. The only conclusion is that they are quite content with the way things worked out.
The court’s five conservative justices struck down a Montana law that prohibited corporate spending in elections — a law passed in 1912 not out of some theoretical concern about money corrupting elections but to put an end to actual influence-buying by copper barons.
State officials told the court that fighting corruption required them to maintain limits on corporate election spending. A series of friend-of-the-court briefs urged the justices to allow other states to impose similar laws, citing the out-of-control spending unleashed since 2010.
Those pleas were summarily rejected by the court’s majority, which refused to hear arguments on the issue. “There can be no serious doubt” that Citizens United applies to Montana, the court said.
That’s true, in the literal sense that Supreme Court decisions apply to the states. But the frustration of the dissenters, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, was clear. He said grave doubt had been cast on the majority’s belief, expressed in Citizens United, that independent expenditures do not give rise to corruption or even give the appearance of corruption. But he said the majority had made it plain that it hasn’t the slightest interest in reconsidering or altering its decision.
Congress can — and should — require disclosure of secret donations. The Internal Revenue Service should crack down on political organizations that pose as tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations to avoid current disclosure rules.
But, for now, the nation’s highest court has chosen to turn its back as elections are bought by the biggest check writers.