The Capitol’s chambers are no strangers to violence, though fortunately the anniversary of the last canings has passed the sesquicentennial mark. It was only eight years ago, however, that President Obama chose to go after Supreme Court justices in that arena. The occasion was his first State of the Union address and the topic was Citizens United, a case the justices had decided in a 5-4 ruling a week earlier, dealing an uppercut to the campaign finance reform movement by ruling that interest groups’ political spending is protected speech under the First Amendment.
The decision rocked politics, and Mr. Obama predicted it would “open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.” In the first election after the ruling, spending did soar. Cash in congressional races leaped 46 percent and continued to tick up in the years since. But spending on presidential elections has dropped since the ruling, challenging Mr. Obama prediction of runaway campaigns.
“I think the impact was enormously exaggerated by opponents of the decision right from the beginning,” said lawyer Ted Olson, who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiffs.
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That was about what Citizens United expected when it went to court in the first place. In 2008, the conservative group tried to air a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton, who at that time was the favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president.
The group wanted to run ads touting the film and its blockbuster title, “Hillary: The Movie.” At the time, however, federal law prohibited a corporation from airing the ads, deeming them anti-Clinton electioneering subject to the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions.
“When we first got to the Supreme Court, our main interest was just to show the documentary and some ads,” said Michael Boos, the executive vice president and general counsel of Citizens United. Conservatives — including President George W. Bush, who signed it into law — believed the courts would declare McCain-Feingold unconstitutional, eliminating its prohibition of corporations using their “general treasury” dollars to fund any “electioneering communications” within 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.