Citizens United: A Year Older, But No Less Contentious

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On the one year anniversary of the Citizens United campaign finance decision, the ruling remains as contentious as ever, with efforts under way to alternative mechanisms to fund campaigns, and attempts to change the law itself.

At the federal level, the progressive organization Common Cause is leading the call for a reappraisal of the ruling. It's also questioning whether the ruling itself was colored by bad ethics. Common Cause points out that Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia, both of whom voted in favor of the ruling in the 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, participated in political strategy sessions with corporate leaders who stood to benefit politically from the decision. Specifically, both justices were named as guests at a political retreat for Tea Party financing-powerhouse Charles Koch. Koch leads Koch Industries, which spent more than $2 million on federal lobbying efforts during last year's third quarter. In the case of Justice Thomas, there is an additional conflict of interest charge because his wife, Virginia Thomas, is CEO of a conservative 501(c)4 group which participated actively in campaign finance in the 2010 elections.

Common Cause wants Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether the justices were ethically bound to have recused themselves from the case. If so, the group wants the Justice Department to file a motion with the Supreme Court to vacate the judgment. Such a result would be highly unlikely, though. While the criteria for judicial disqualification is spelled out under United States Code, the decision to recuse is ultimately left up to the individual Supreme Court justice.

Meanwhile, in New York, leaders of several national reform organizations urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to overhaul New York State’s election system. Separately, Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Queens), State Senator Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn/Manhattan) and New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio announced their support of a bill to require corporations to disclose and defend donations to their shareholders.

The state legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Lancman and Senator Squadron is an attempt to decrease corporate spending on political campaigns by mandating that corporations making political expenditures first obtain approval from a majority of their shareholders. In addition, the bill would require that those corporations explain to shareholders the business rationale behind the contributions. Public Advocate de Blasio has also created an online petition for New Yorkers to urge the New York State Legislature to pass the Corporate Political Accountability to Shareholders Act.

Groups are also calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a public financing system in New York. Saying that “dysfunction in Albany and a broken political system in New York has been an open secret for far too long”, Michael Waldman, Executive Director of the Brennen Center, joined Common Cause and a dozen other advocacy groups in asking Governor Cuomo to make good on his promises to bring reform to Albany by enacting a voluntary system of public financing for the state. 

Waldman said reform is “necessary for the economic revitalization of the state”, though the fact remains that there is no money in the budget to adopt new initiatives. Advocates estimate it would cost $15 million a year, which could be a tough sell during a budget crisis.