Stephen Weissman for The American Interest:
In January 2010, the nation’s highest court issued its opinion in the Citizens United campaign finance case, its most controversial ruling in this century. Yet despite the widespread criticism it has provoked, the full meaning and impact of this decision is still poorly understood by political leaders and the general public. While the court’s specific holding—that corporations can spend independently of candidates in elections—is widely recognized, its underlying constitutional rationale is rarely discussed. This is important because that rationale has nearly erased the court’s longtime standard for evaluating campaign finance restrictions, casting a shadow over every local, state, and Federal effort to control money in politics. In just seven years, the role of the wealthy few in financing Federal elections has increased geometrically.
Why has so little attention been paid to this legal transformation? Certainly, America’s byzantine system of campaign finance regulation makes it difficult for observers to comprehend the significance of judicial decisions. But in this case, the Supreme Court itself has been the primary obfuscator. Even as it has claimed to be largely following its long-reigning campaign finance precedent—Buckley v. Valeo (1976)—it has rather surreptitiously undermined Buckley’s justification for campaign finance regulation.