A National Partnership Working for Fair and Impartial Courts
Contact Us Home July 22, 2018
"Essential to public confidence in the judiciary is the assurance that justice is not for sale and that legal disputes will be resolved by fair and impartial judicial officers."
Committee for Economic Development, in a U.S. Supreme Court brief signed by Wal-Mart, Pepsico, Intel and Lockheed Martin

Citizens United Resource Page

On Jan. 21, 2010 the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Overturning long-standing precedents and laws dating back more than a century, the court declared that corporations could not be barred from spending on election campaigns.

Although the First Amendment ruling will eventually affect all federal and state elections, a striking exchange in the Supreme Court’s opinion made it clear that there was special concern about state courts, where election spending has soared in the last decade. State Supreme Court candidates raised $206.9 million from 2000-2009, more than double the $83.3 million raised in the previous 10 years.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned, “At a time when concerns about the conduct of judicial elections have reached a fever pitch … the Court today unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union general treasury spending in these races.” 

Stevens’ opinion cited an amicus brief filed by Justice at Stake, signed by 20 legal and civic reform groups, in outlining his concerns.

Even before the ruling, states already were wrestling with ways to protect the unique role of courts from special-interest influence.

The Case
Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit group that gets corporate funding, produced an election-year documentary critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary season, it sought to distribute “Hillary: The Movie” by cable television video-on-demand.

A federal court said the documentary fell under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain-Feingold. That law bars nonprofit groups from using corporate funds to advocate for or against a federal candidate in the 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

The Precedents 
After hearing oral arguments last spring, the Supreme Court did not issue a narrow ruling on whether the government could bar the Citizens United documentary at election time. Instead, the court set a rehearing and broadened the case dramatically, saying it would examine whether any ban on corporate election spending violates the First Amendment. Specifically, it signaled it might overturn two cases in which such bans were held to be constitutional: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a 1990 case involving a Michigan election law; and a portion of McConnell v. FEC, a 2003 decision upholding McCain-Feingold.

The Citizens United decision continues to receive media coverage. For a highlight of coverage surrounding the decision immediately after it was issued, click here, to read see all news coverage about the decision, click here.
The positions and policies of Justice at Stake publications and campaign partners are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other campaign partners or board members.
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