• La Raza Pre-Law Student Association

2/17 - Campaign Finance laws


In January of 2008, a conservative non-profit corporation, Citizens United, released a documentary that depicted how Hillary Clinton (running for President at the time) was incapable of the presidency, spending a total of $1,000,000. However, Citizens United was aware that Section 203 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), or Mccain-Feingold Act, prohibited corporations and labor unions from financing election advertisements on candidates' behalf. So, Citizens United filed a preliminary injunction towards the Federal Election Commissions (FEC) in the D.C. district court over Section 203 violating their first amendment rights. However, the District Court denied the injunction since, according to the D.C. court, it already ruled in both Mcconnell v D.C. and Austin v Michigan Chamber of Commerce that section 203 doesn't violate the First Amendment. The supreme court reviewed the case, and the mandate that was in question was whether or not section 203 and the BCRA and Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971 § 441b are unconstitutional.


Before the Mccain Feingold act got into the Supreme Court, the Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) was the first case that dealt with campaign finance laws. The Michigan Campaign Finance Act prohibited corporations from using treasury money to support or oppose candidates in elections. The defendant, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce (a pro-business advocacy group), tried to use treasury money to publish an advertisement in a newspaper supporting a specific candidate to the Michigan House of Representatives, violating the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. As a result, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce sued then-Secretary of State Richard Austin over grounds that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It first went to the Federal district court in the Eastern Michigan ruling in favor of the State; then it went to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 6th circuit, overturning the lower court's decision. As a result, the Supreme Court looked at this case. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme court ruled in favor of Austin, where the Michigan Campaign Finance Act did not violate the First or the Fourteenth Amendment.

The second case relating to campaign finance was McConnell v. Federal Election Commissions (2003). The U.S. senator of Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, sued the FEC, stating that the McCain Feingold act violated the first amendment. Its provisions that McConnell sued were number one Ban on soft money made directly to political parties by corporations; the second limited on the timeline for advertising, which is 60 days before an election; and third was the limits of funds towards candidates. A three panel in the U.S. District Court in D.C. uploaded some of the provisions while overturning others, which is why the McConnell Case expedited to the supreme court. In a close 5-4 decision, the Supreme court ruled in favor of the BCRA, stating that the First Amendment protects not all political speech from government infringement.

The decision of the case:

The court held that sections 203 of the BCRA and 441b of the FECA respectively overstepped the limitations of Congress and infringed on freedom of speech. Justice Kennedy explained that while the government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, it cannot suppress contribution or speech altogether since it would violate the freedom of association clause within the First Amendment. He also remarks that since BCRA does not distinguish the difference between media and corporations, it allowed Congress to suppress political speech in newspapers, tv, and blogs, which violates the freedom of the press clause of the First Amendment. In essence, Kennedy reverses the previous Supreme Court cases relating to campaign finance laws in the Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the McConnell v. Fec (2003) cases that restricted corporate contributions. What got Justice Kennedy to reverse both McConnell v. FEC and Austin v. Michigan, respectively, was that according to Kennedy, the government's interest in preventing corruption did not outweigh the freedom of speech since money counts as speech. Kennedy heavily relies on Buckley v. Valeo and the First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti cases as his rationale since both of them already decided that Corporations enjoy the first amendment rights as normal individuals. He uses these two cases as a way to prove the First Amendment protects corporations from campaign restrictions.

Justice Stevens delivered the dissenting opinion that Congress had a reasonable interest in restricting corruption and did not restrict the first amendment. He explained how corporations are not members of society because the Founding Fathers established the constitution as "we the people," which was meant to protect individuals and not corporations. Stevens uses the stare decisis standard as his rationale since he cites the Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce case as a way to prove that the Supreme Court must respect precedence. Stevens used the Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce case to apply to the Citizens United v. FEC case because, like the Austin case, the BCRA was meant to protect individuals' contributions from being drowned by corporations. He concludes that corporations can express their freedom of speech in other ways since the BCRA allows corporations and unions to fund advertisements through Political Action Committees (PAC); therefore, the BCRA does not violate an individuals' first amendment.

The opinion of this case:

Looking back on this case, the Supreme Court wrongly decided this case. The first reason why it was wrongly decided is that it allowed our political process to be corrupted, where now politicians from both parties depend on corporate money. Ever wondered why the United States could not bring fundamental changes like police reforms, public option health care, or Gun reform; the broken system of campaign finance allows corporations to buy politicians to vote against these reforms. The second reason why it was wrongly decided is that it drowns out the voices of average Americans. When you see political advertisements in election years, corporations can flood advertisements like misleading attack ads to misinform you. While some previous cases were wrongly decided, we have to respect precedence in this case because those previous cases of both Mcconnell v. FEC and Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce were not one of them.







Written by Brandon Blanco, Political Chair. The views expressed in the journal are their own and not the view of The La Raza Pre Law.

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