The Impact of Citizens United, 10 Years Later

It was called Citizens United, but that landmark Supreme Court decision left the American public largely divided.

Deciding that campaign spending was a protected form of free speech, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the nonprofit organization Citizens United, which wanted to distribute a documentary it produced that was critical of Hillary Clinton. The 5-4 decision effectively eliminated limits on political spending by outside groups.

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On the 10th anniversary of one of the United States’ most divisive Supreme Court rulings, two legal analysts share their differing views on the impact Citizens United has had on campaign funding and the nation’s political process.

Daniel Suhr is an attorney with the Liberty Justice Center, which describes itself as a nonpartisan public-interest litigation center focused on free market rights. Suhr previously served as deputy legal counsel to former Republican Wisconsin Gov.Scott Walker.  

Attorney David Melton is senior advisor for Reform for Illinois, created as a bipartisan effort to address the role of money in politics and promote transparency in the political system.

Below, a Q&A with our guests.

What are some common misconceptions about the Citizens United ruling?

Melton: One misconception is that Citizens United broke the campaign finance system. It was already broken. Our political system was already leaning disproportionately towards the wealthy.

Suhr: Citizens United didn’t change campaign financing that much. It’s the principle of the ruling that’s important. The justices realized we need a robust marketplace of ideas for our democratic system to function. If you disagree with someone, you shouldn’t try to regulate them and push them out.

How has the Citizens United ruling impacted our political process?

Melton: Citizens United, in combination with 2010’s Speech Now ruling, opened the door to dark money. It changed the dynamic of fundraising. Before Citizens United, it was more difficult to hide campaign contributions. Citizens United made it easier for the wealthy to unduly influence elections.

Suhr: An important thing to remember about Citizens United is that it’s not a left or right issue. It’s a ruling that upholds the right for all of us to use our money to support issues that matter to us. It shouldn’t be seen as a way for right-wing activists to gain disproportionate power in politics.  

Liberty Justice Center has sued several states who were creating campaign finance reforms, correct?

Suhr: Our belief is that free speech is a fundamental right for all Americans. Yes, we have suits in four states – Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island, New Jersey – where government is trying to force new disclosure regulations on nonprofit groups. We think it’s an invasion of their privacy. We think these groups should get to do what they want without government invading their space.

What are the downsides of transparency in campaign donations?

Suhr: One thing we see over and over again … entrenched special interests and politicians in power try to enact laws that limit the ability of others to challenge the status quo. We need to be careful about forced disclosure of private donations because it creates the potential for those in power to oppose anyone who contributed to their political rival.

What would you like to see changed about how campaigns are funded?

Melton: There is a good solution to the problem of the wealthy having too much influence in politics. We need to address the problem that the founders never anticipated. If we want democracy, we need a system in which average voters fund campaigns. That means public financing. One encouraging thing we’ve seen over last few years is that it’s possible to fund campaigns on small donations. Citizens United has complicated things, but we can still proceed with reforming our system and moving towards public funding of campaigns. 

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