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The Immediate Effects of the “Citizens United II” Ruling

Dashing any hope that the Supreme Court would reconsider its ruling in Citizens United, the justices today handed down a terse, 5-4 decision that definitively invalidated state bans on corporate spending. It’s a hard knock for reformers, who were earnestly wishing (but probably not expecting) that the Supreme Court would at least hear new arguments regarding its controversial 2010 decision. But what, in reality, does it mean for states and their elections?

Not all that much. The case decided this morning concerned Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which banned outside political spending by corporations. The law was enacted in 1912 to limit the influence of Montana’s early 20th century ‘Copper Kings’ in local elections. (For an engrossing history of the act and their tycoonery, see Larry Howell’s paper in the Montana Law Review.) When the Citizens United decision came down in 2010, Montana was one of 24 state with such campaign finance limits, but it was the only one that decided to continue enforcing its ban, citing the state’s history of electoral corruption as an extenuating circumstance. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the law in September when it was challenged by American Tradition Partnership, a tax-exempt political group “dedicated to fighting environmental extremism.” This morning's decision was a summary reversal of that lower court's ruling—the court declined to hear new arguments and immediately invalidated the Montana court's decision.

As a practical matter, then, this morning’s ruling only confirms the pervasive bleakness of campaign finance regulation in local and state elections. Unlimited corporate spending in elections all the way down to the sheriff's office will remain law of the land for the foreseeable future. The real significance of ATP v. Bullock, explained Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, is that it demonstrates just what an uphill climb it will be for anyone looking to roll back the consequences of Citizens United through legal means. “I think this is the last we’re going to hear of this specific legal issue for years to come,” Ryan said. “It shows that it may require change in composition of the Supreme Court before this issue of money in elections can be revisited.” Of course, amending the constitution would be another option—one that some progressive lawmakers are already exploring.

There is one tiny ray of light for would-be reformers contained in the single-page, unsigned decision. Ryan points out that part of the reason the Court rejected Montana’s arguments was that they “[failed] to meaningfully distinguish” the state’s need for an exemption to Citizens United. This suggests that states’ individual experiences—with documentable corruption, for example—could be used as the basis for a future legitimate challenge to Citizens United. But he doubts, at the same time, that this will happen anytime in the near future. “These states just aren’t going to be enforcing these spending limit laws.” So much for hope.