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What’s the Impact of Citizens United?

January 22, 2010

Greg Marx in Columbia Journalism Review:

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling yesterday in Citizens United v. FEC, overturning the federal ban on corporate spending in elections, has been cast in the media as a momentous decision. The New York Times gave the news a banner headline and two front-page stories:one described the ruling as “a sharp doctrinal shift [that] will have major political and practical consequences; the other said it gave lobbyists “a potent weapon” to wield against candidates for office.

There’s no denying that the opinion indicates the Roberts Court is prepared to makesweeping decisions on topics that have been the subject of long, and often agonized, debate. There’s also no denying that this court seems extremely skeptical of attempts to check the role of money in politics—a stance that has elicited both applause andcondemnation. But some sharp observers are already arguing that the practical impact of this specific ruling may not be as great as the headlines suggest—or, at least, not for the obvious reasons.

That is in large part because, thanks to recent court decisions, the restraints on corporate money in campaigns were already modest. As Nate Persily, director of the Center for Law and Politics at Columbia Law School, wrote for “The Takeaway”:

Most critics of the decision will suggest that the Court, with this decision, opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate and union spending in next year’s and subsequent federal elections. The truth is that this decision is the latest in a series of decisions (four, to be exact) from the Roberts Court knocking down campaign finance laws. The floodgates, such as they are, were opened three years ago in a different case, Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC.

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