SCOTUS Rebuffs Challenge to Citizens United

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So it will be 72 long hours until the Supreme Court renders its verdict on the future of all-mankind, a.k.a. the health care reform law. In the meantime, it has issued a short but important ruling on a case they decided not to hear. In a 5-4 decision this morning, the Court struck down a Montana law that imposed strict limits on campaign donations, declining to consider a challenge to its Citizens United ruling. For opponents of that controversial opinion, today’s decision might seem like a stinging rebuke. But it is also likely a blessing in disguise. 

First, the nuts and bolts: In what’s known as a “summary reversal,” the Court’s conservative wing ruled that a century-old Montana state law barring corporate campaign donations violated the spirit of the 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that corporate spending was protected speech under the First Amendment. A summary reversal means the decision was issued without granting oral arguments for the case, known as American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock. (Steve Bullock is Montana’s attorney general, as well as the state’s Democratic nominee for governor; American Tradition Partnership is the Virginia-based anti-environmental advocacy group that sued Montana for bucking its right to spend freely in the state’s elections.)

The reversal overturns a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court, which refused to strike down the state’s ban on corporations spending in elections. A district court had previously ruled the statute should be struck.

The ruling was something of a surprise — legal analysts had widely predicted the Court would grant certiorari. Montana, joined by 22 states and the District of Columbia, anchored its case in the principles of federalism, arguing that they, not the federal government, should have the right to make their own election laws. But according to precedent, federal law supersedes state law. In the unsigned statement for the majority, the Court held that “there can be no serious doubt” that Citizens United applies to the Montana state law.

In a dissent, Justice Breyer argued the precedent established by Citizens United “should not bar” Montana’s existing anti-corruption stature, which had been on the books since 1912. Breyer, joined by the three members of the Court’s liberal wing, lamented that the Court was passing up an opportunity to revisit its 2010 ruling, which he opposes. “Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt,” Breyer wrote. But, Breyer added, the majority’s per curiam opinion indicated that the Court was disinclined to reconsider its ruling in Citizens United. Accordingly, while he dissented from the majority opinion, Breyer decided against granting the petition to take the case to the full court–thereby denying opponents of Citizens United the fourth vote they needed to garner a full hearing before the Court.

For liberals, the Court’s decision not to relitigate a decision that reshaped the contours of the American election system would seem a bitter disappointment. But if you oppose Citizens United, the summary reversal is probably a good thing. There is, as Breyer noted, little indication that any of the conservative justices who reshaped U.S. election law through Citizens United are currently inclined to change their minds on the merits of the case, regardless of the consequences that have manifested. As I wrote recently, had the Court taken the case now, the likeliest result would have been for Citizens United to be upheld or extended, further cementing the precedent. That would make it harder for a Court with a more liberal bent to undo or alter the law going forward.