WASHINGTON — Amid a torrent of campaign spending, a divided Supreme Court on Monday declined to take another look at a controversial 2010 ruling that helped open up the political floodgates.
The court’s decision means the increasingly secretive world of campaign contributions and the unforeseen consequences of the case known as Citizens United will remain intact for the foreseeable future. The decision also exposed a sharp split on the court, where four of the nine justices voiced unhappiness Monday about the current role of money in politics.
“Considerable experience since the court’s decision in Citizens United casts grave doubt on the court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote on behalf of the four justices who wanted to revisit the 2010 case.
In its 5-4 ruling two years ago, the court declared that restrictions on independent expenditures violated the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. The ruling meant corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts on ads designed to help or hurt a candidate; the ruling, however, did not change the rules governing contributions made directly to candidates.
The ruling, along with related campaign finance decisions, has enabled political operatives to raise and spend record sums. Groups like American Crossroads have been pumping big bucks into Republican efforts, while Democrats have formed their own groups with names like Priorities USA.
The outside spending by non-party groups in this election cycle already has exceeded $160 million. The largest group so far, a so-called “super PAC” called Restore our Future, has spent more than $53 million in support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Though not all of the enhanced fundraising stems directly from the Citizens United ruling, the case has become shorthand for unfettered campaign donations and spending.
The potential opportunity to revisit Citizens United arose because last year, in an extraordinary challenge to the high court’s authority, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a longstanding state campaign finance law that banned corporate spending on elections. The state ban dates back to 1912, when it was imposed to counteract the clout of Montana’s powerful copper industry. The state ruling essentially dismissed the U.S. Supreme Court’s commands, which is something the Supreme Court frowns upon.
“Unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history,” the Montana Supreme Court insisted.
California, Idaho, Washington and 19 other states had joined in a friend-of-the-court brief siding with Montana
“Contributors who want to give enough money to buy candidates now have an obvious place to turn: ‘outside’ groups with a publicly stated intent to pour massive sums into supporting those candidates,” former Solicitor General Seth Waxman wrote in a legal brief urging the court to take the case.
But because the Montana court’s decision directly flouted the Supreme Court’s ruling, some advocates urged the high court to summarily overturn it without the need for a full hearing.
“When the highest court in the country has spoken clearly on a matter of federal constitutional law, as it did in Citizens United . . . this court is not at liberty to disregard or parse that decision in order to uphold a state law that, while politically popular, is clearly at odds with the Supreme Court’s decision,” Justice James Nelson of the Montana Supreme Court warned in a dissent.
On Monday, in its unsigned decision, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the Montana court’s actions. Breyer and the four dissenting justices agreed that the Montana court was in the wrong but still wanted the case heard fully to set the stage for winding back at least some of the Citizens United ruling.
The court’s decision Monday to stick with Citizens United for the foreseeable future prompted criticism from congressional Democrats, some of whom are themselves formidable fundraisers, while Citizens United President David Bossie called it simply “another win for the First Amendment.”