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Public Citizen Urges Public Outcry, Launches Web Campaign In Advance of Pivotal Campaign Finance Case

Aug. 18, 2009

Public Citizen Urges Public Outcry, Launches Web Campaign In Advance of Pivotal Campaign Finance Case

U.S. Supreme Court May Open Floodgates, Allow Corporate Cash to Swamp Elections

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen today launched a campaign designed to draw attention to the potentially monumental consequences of a case the U.S. Supreme Court will rehear Sept. 9. The justices are using the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, to reconsider – and possibly roll back – a century’s worth of legal precedents designed to curb corporate influence over federal elections.

The court heard the case during its last term, but in a stunning move, said in late June that it would rehear it and simultaneously reconsider two previous landmark campaign finance cases, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. In other words, the Supreme Court has transformed a case that posed a limited challenge to the McCain-Feingold law into a sweeping challenge to a century-old pillar of campaign finance doctrine: restrictions on direct corporate and union financing of candidate campaigns. 

“Overturning these well-established laws would turn our elections into free-for-alls with massive corporate and union spending, and would make officeholders beholden to the deep pockets that promote them,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Corporate influence would likely be strengthened over all policy decisions – on health care reform, climate change, trade – everything. The public would be further shut out of its own government.”

For that reason, Public Citizen is launching a “Don’t Get Rolled” campaign to organize protests on the day of the re-argument and beyond. On www.DontGetRolled.org, citizens sign the “Pledge to Protest” indicating they will take action on Sept. 9 to raise awareness of the main potential ramification of the case: that corporations would get a license to steamroll citizens. At www.DontGetRolled.org, people can find suggestions for actions to take such as spreading the word through video, e-mail or blogging, or hitting the streets with a traditional picket or street theater.

The site provides background information, history and solutions to curbing the influence of money in politics, and recommends a variety of communication tools voters can use to let others know that the Supreme Court should provide voters with more – not less – protection from wealthy corporate interests.

“Clearly, now is not the time to give Wall Street and big corporations more power in Washington,” said Angela Canterbury, an advocacy director at Public Citizen. “We have already received a lot of enthusiasm from people all over the country who want to do something to protest more corporate money and influence in politics. We hope the campaign will encourage everyone who cares about the democratic process and retaining our hard-won campaign finance reforms to get involved.”

The Citizens United case started out as a controversy over the application of the McCain-Feingold law to a film about 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, titled “Hillary: The Movie.” The film, produced by a right-wing group called Citizens United, which accepts corporate funds, is a non-stop attack on Hillary Clinton’s fitness for office.

Citizens United planned to show the movie through on-demand satellite transmissions and to run TV ads promoting it in areas where then-Sen. Clinton was on primary election ballots. Both the satellite transmissions and the ads would fall under the McCain-Feingold law’s definition of “electioneering communications.” The satellite transmissions would be subject to restrictions on who could pay for them that would forbid use of corporate or union funds, and both the transmissions and the ads would be subject to funding disclosure requirements. (McCain-Feingold refers to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.)

In 2007, Citizens United sued, challenging the constitutionality of the law’s provisions governing disclosure and funding of “electioneering communications.” The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied Citizens United’s request that the court prevent the FEC from enforcing the law. The court later dismissed Citizens United’s lawsuit, and Citizens United petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.

For a century, the Supreme Court has recognized that the large sums of money corporations and unions can tap into to influence elections can corrupt our political process, so the justices generally have granted deference to Congress when it restricts corporate campaign contributions and expenditures. In past rulings, the court has recognized that the wealth of corporations and unions, when used to affect candidate elections, could have “untoward consequences for the democratic process.” The court has defended Congress’s efforts to protect the electoral process “from what it deemed to be the corroding effect of money employed in elections by aggregated power.” 

Note: Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson is one of the attorneys representing the key congressional sponsors of the McCain-Feingold law and co-authored their amicus brief, available HERE.