The Supreme Court's rejection of a case letting states bar corporate and union political contributions in their own elections underscores the legal quandary in which many reformers find themselves, and it means that members of Congress must continue to navigate a moneyed landscape where new geysers of cash seem to erupt each day.
The Court, in a 5-to-4 vote split, struck down a Montana ban on corporate political spending that had been upheld by the state's high court. The majority's decision effectively affirms the landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations and unions were entitled to the same free-speech protections as citizens.
Few had anticipated that the Court would overrule Citizens United, but the majority used the Montana case, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, to strengthen it from legal challenges.
The case stemmed from a century-old Montana law that prohibits corporations from spending money on political campaigns. The effort, joined by more than 20 states, stipulated that states should be allowed to carve out their own rules to regulate political fundraising and spending, an argument backed by the Montana Supreme Court when it ruled in favor of the state law last year.
But the Supreme Court, in a one-page per curiam opinion shutting the door on the possibility of hearing oral arguments in the Montana case, curtly dismissed the notion that federal law didn't apply. Ironically, the conservative jurists who have been deferential to states' rights in the past were not so deferential in this case.
The Citizens United decision, combined with other court cases and FEC rulings, has dramatically loosened fundraising and spending regulations for independent political organizations, which have proliferated since 2010 and become a major force in campaigns. Efforts to curb the spending through the judiciary have thus far proven fruitless. Paul Ryan, senior counsel to the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that seeks to limit the influence of money in politics, called the ruling "disappointing but predictable."
"Unfortunately the only surprise would have been if the Supreme Court had taken the opportunity to revisit its horribly misguided decision in Citizens United," Ryan said. "Clearly, the Supreme Court has decided to wash its hands of the disastrous results of its earlier decision. Apparently, the same five justices who gave us Citizens United are not troubled by the fact that special interests are picking the winners and losers in our federal and state elections."
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer reiterated his existing objection to the Citizens United decision, arguing that the proliferation of political spending amounted to a quid pro quo arrangement between politicians and political big spenders. He also backed the state's right to decide on its own whether corporate spending constituted a corrupting influence, the threshold conservative justices have argued laws must pass to be constitutional.
"Thus, 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," Breyer wrote.
But even as the liberal justice signaled that he would like to reconsider Citizens United, he acknowledged that the Supreme Court's unchanging conservative majority means it's doubtful that there is a "significant possibility" the panel will reverse itself — something that pleased conservatives.
"This closes the door on the argument that unique facts in a certain state can be employed to overturn [Citizens United]," said Jim Bopp, an Indiana campaign finance attorney who has spearheaded an array of challenges to campaign finance laws across the country. "Further, it means that independent expenditures are never corrupting as a matter of federal constitutional law."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime advocate for loosening campaign finance regulations, hailed it as "another important victory for freedom of speech."
"Clearly, the much predicted corporate tsunami that critics of Citizens United warned about simply did not occur," he said in a statement.
That may be true, but the potential sources of campaign revenue have been widely expanded since the ruling, and this week's action only enshrines that.
In Congress, where campaign finance was once a topic that consumed vast amounts of energy and the McCain-Feingold legislation sparked debate, all's relatively quiet — and the idea of reining in political money seems like an increasingly distant memory.