Supreme Court doubles down on "Citizens United"

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The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision Monday to strike down a Montana lawthat limits corporate spending on elections made clear that the outrage generated by the 2010 "Citizens United" decision has done nothing to change the minds of the justices.

"Nobody's moved, the general principles seem to be the same," said Bob Biersack of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "They weren't persuaded that specific circumstances in a specific context make much difference. We're still where we were."

Today's decision boils down to a declaration that the "Citizens United" decision, which allowed for unlimited spending by corporations and special interest groups to influence elections, also applies to state and local elections. Montana - backed by Republican Sen. John McCain and 22 states - had argued that its 1912 law limiting corporate influence in elections needed to remain in place, in part because of the state's history of election interference by its mining industry "copper kings."

The state Supreme Court agreed, but the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court overruled that court. They offered a summery reversal of the Montana court's decision, writing that "Montana's arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case."

Two of the liberal justices on the court wanted the Montana case heard because of the impact the Citizens United (along with other decisions) have already had on the world of campaign finance. By one estimate, conservative outside groups alone are poised to spend more than $1 billion to influence the 2012 election.

"Montana's experience, like considerable experience elsewhere 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," dissenting justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the decision released Monday. In "Citizens United," the court held that "independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

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Democrats were strongly critical of the court's decision.

"The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Montana's ban on corporate spending in elections is the wrong decision for Montana and it is the wrong decision for America," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democrats' primary voice on campaign finance issues. "It flies in the face of the state's history of the corrosive influence of corporate spending and rejects the decision of Montana voters to rid their state of this corrupt influence."

Polls have shown the Citizens United decision - which President Obama publicly criticized at his State of the Union address in 2010 - to be unpopular. According to election law expert Jan Baran, the Supreme Court has rarely responded to changes in public opinion.

"I think it is impervious to public opinion when they believe they're correct to constitutional opinion," he said. "If they were to vacillate because of public opinion we would have had reversals on 'Roe vs. Wade' numerous times over the last 40 years."

"The court isn't going to make any big changes for the foreseeable future," he continued. "Any steps on campaign finance reform will have to come from Congress and the legislature. And there the issue is largely about more laws requiring more disclosure."

There have been legislative efforts to mandate that the interests or individuals who are financing election ads be forced to identify themselves - a notion that 8 of 9 Supreme Court justices have generally signed onto - but such efforts have been blocked, largely by Republicans.

"The distressing results from our perspective are there is still so much about this process that we don't know, that we don't see," said Biersack of The Center for Responsive Politics. "It's the lack of disclosure that we are still most concerned about."

Biersack said that it was not outside the realm of possibility that the court, which significantly broadened the scope of the original Citizens United case, could have used the Montana case to address disclosure issues.

For now, however, the court is making clear that it is not about to reverse what has turned out to be its most controversial ruling since "Bush v Gore."

"In terms of asking the court to revisit 'Citizens United,' I don't see that happening for the forseeable future," said Baran, though he added: "The Constitution doesn't change, but the composition of the court can change."

UPDATE, 5:41 p.m. Eastern Time: A statement from White House spokesman Eric Schultz:

"We are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take the opportunity presented by the Montana case to revisit its decision in Citizens United.

In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, we have seen unprecedented amounts of campaign spending, often by groups that won't disclose their donors.

Citizens United was wrong when it was decided and as two Supreme Court Justices have observed since, independent expenditures by corporations are threatening the health of our democracy.

Citizens United mistakenly overruled longstanding cases that protected the fairness and integrity of elections. Unfortunately, the Court today missed an opportunity to correct that mistake."

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