Portal:Corporate Rights

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The Corporate Rights Portal

Learn about corporate "speech" and other "rights" v. people's rights. And help put Americans before corporations.

Americans are fighting back against the increased power of corporations in elections and public policy. In January 2010, a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court issued a revolutionary and very harmful decision, in a case called Citizens United, asserting that the Constitution bars Congress from limiting "speech," meaning money spent, to influence our elections. In the two years since the ruling, CEOs and corporations have increased their role in our elections, and they have used "Super PACs" and "non-profit" groups to run multi-million dollar ad campaigns to influence elections and public policy without full disclosure of their financial interests. In essence, corporations and their CEOs are throwing their voices, like ventriloquists, through front groups working to distort our elections through deception and misinformation. Because the Court's 5-4 decision was an "interpretation" of the Constitution and the five guys in the majority may be there for a decade or more, amending the Constitution is the only way to reverse the Court, but admittedly that can seem like a daunting task. A "constellation" of public interest groups the Center for Media and Democracy is working with has been formed and the groups have joined together in a statement of common purpose in agreement that we must amend the Constitution to address this disastrous ruling.

We at CMD believe the decision necessitates having a national conversation about what to do about the problem that most Americans understand--that corporations and their CEOs have too much influence in our politics and policies. A January 2011 poll has found that four out of every five Americans oppose the decision in Citizens United and support a constitutional amendment to reverse it. CMD is providing the resources below, which provide links and information to several organizations fighting excessive corporate influence, to help advance our common objective. You can also sign up to receive emails from us by signing up to help put Americans Before Corporations. Now is not a time for people concerned about these issues to be divided; in order to make headway we must work together and this way attempts to support the necessity of collaboration.

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Occupy Wall Street & Overturning Corporate Personhood

As the "Occupy" protests spread from New York's Zuccotti Park across the country (and the world), opposition to corporate personhood, corporate greed, and corporate influence in America's political system is an ongoing theme.

  • On November 18, Rep. Tom Deutsch (D-FL) introduced the Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy (OCCUPIED) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn Citizens United, re-establish the right of Congress and the states to regulate campaign finance, and to effectively outlaw for-profit corporations from contributing to political campaigns. “No matter how long protesters camp out across America, big banks will continue to pour money into shadow groups promoting candidates more likely to slash Medicaid for poor children than help families facing foreclosure,” Deutch in a statement. “No matter how strongly Ohio families fight for basic fairness for workers, the Koch Brothers will continue to pour millions into campaigns aimed at protecting the wealthiest 1%. No matter how fed up seniors in South Florida are with an agenda that puts oil subsidies ahead of Social Security and Medicare, corporations will continue to fund massive publicity campaigns and malicious attack ads against the public interest. Americans of all stripes agree that for far too long, corporations have occupied Washington and drowned out the voices of the people. I introduced the OCCUPIED Amendment because the days of corporate control of our democracy. It is time to return the nation’s capital and our democracy to the people.”
  • Former MSNBC host Cenk Uygur announced the formation of a political action committee called "Wolf PAC" at Occupy Wall Street on October 19, with the goal of amending the U.S. Constitution to get big money out of politics and restore representative democracy. Uygur, whose online show The Young Turks will move to Al Gore's Current TV network in November, tells the Center for Media and Democracy "politicians represent their donors rather than the people that elected them. We've lost our democracy and our votes have become irrelevant. Who wins an election is determined by who has the most money." He says, "the only solution is to call a constitutional convention to, at a minimum, overturn corporate personhood and create public financing for elections." Read more here.
  • The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and Jay Harris of the "We The People" project appeared on Thom Hartmann's Big Picture on October 28 to discuss corporate personhood, and how a constitutional amendment to end it is a top demand at many Occupy protests across the country.
  • Lyle Dennison of the National Constitutional Center writes in the Huffington Post about Rabbi Michael Lerner's call for a constitutional amendment that would "require corporations to get a new corporate charter once every five years which they can only get if they can prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens."
  • Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons told CNN October 14 that protestors might remain at Zuccotti Park until Congress passes a constitutional amendment that says “money is going to leave Washington.” “It all goes back to the fact that corporations are controlling our government,” he said. “It’s a democracy. The people should control this government, it’s pretty simple.”
  • Ezra Klein writes in the Washington Post that corporate money in politics is a major demand of the DC Occupy protesters.
  • On October 14, the Move to Amend coalition released a statement in support of the Occupy protests.
  • Dave Niose writes in Psychology Today about how, in his conversations with protesters, a recurring policy aim was a constitutional amendment addressing corporate personhood and redefining the role of corporations.
  • On October 7, the Center for Media and Democracy connected the early Occupy protests with the need to separate money and politics.
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Selected Articles

  • In Bloomberg's Business Week, Cardozo Law School professor Susan Crawford writes on how the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) could require that the shadowy corporate front groups that buy political ads on the public airwaves be required to say where their funding comes from. Doing so would likely be within the FCC's authority, she writes, but "Oregon Republican Greg Walden, chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over the FCC’s budget, has promised to go “nuclear” with budgetary reprisals if the commission dares require full identification of campaign ads’ funders."
  • Mike Sacks writes in the Huffington Post about how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field intentionally worked the notion of corporate personhood into American jurisprudence in the late 19th Century. The commonly-held notion is that a Court Reporter erroneously inserted "corporate personhood" in a case summary, but Sacks argues the act was much more deliberate. Additionally, Richard White, writing in Politico, describes the Gilded Age-era court decisions that gave rise to corporate personhood, and how that era's corruption and corporate power gave rise to reform.
  • In the 2011 article Only People Can Vote—Only People Should Finance Campaigns, tax attorney Greg Colvin argues for a constitutional amendment that, rather than attacking corporate personhood directly, would aim to drive big money out of politics by only permitting individual citizens to make campaign-related expenditures. Corporations (both for-profit and nonprofit), labor unions, business associations, banks and trusts, foreign donors and multi-national conglomerates would all be prohibited from attempting to influence elections, but public financing would be permitted. Colvin is a specialist in the law surrounding political and lobbying activities of nonprofit organizations, and he has also commented on the very important need for the U.S. government to establish a uniform definition for when expenditures amount to "political intervention" or are for a "political purpose."
  • The New York Times reports that Common Cause is making a unique attempt to reverse the Citizens United decision by claiming Justices Scalia and Thomas should have recused themselves from the case. The advocacy group has filed a petition with the Department of Justice alleging the Justices may have been biased in favor of conservative campaign financiers the Koch brothers (one of the major beneficiaries of the decision) based on the participation of the Justices in one of the brothers' "political retreats." Common Cause also cited as grounds for disqualification the role of Justice Thomas’s wife, Virginia Thomas, in forming the conservative political group Liberty Central.
  • Jamie Raskin writes at Huffington Post on the first anniversary of the decision, and touches on the strange position we are placed in by the Supreme Court's treatment of non-profit and for-profit corporations as identical for First Amendment purposes.
  • Soon after the Supreme Court's decision, Greg Palast wrote a provocative article "Supreme Court to OK Al Qaeda donation for Sarah Palin?", discussing the potential implication of the decision for foreign influence on U.S. policy (even though the Court sidestepped the issue in the case).

"If corporations are truly "persons" protected by the Constitution, decades of rules protecting consumers from unsafe working conditions, unsafe products, harmful pollution and other ills are likely to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court or be undone by politicians afraid of provoking corporate attack ads. Those laws were enacted to "promote the general welfare" at the request of "We the People."

For more State and Federal legislative proposals responding to Citizens United, see our Legislative Proposals Responding to Citizens United article. Also see the Congressional Hearings on Citizens United article.

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Featured Videos

Annie Leonard, of The Story of Stuff Fame, has a great new video out on this vital issue, and here are some really terrific videos that help explain why we must address the excessive power of corporations in our elections and in policies that affect our lives and our future:

The Story of Citizens United
John Bonifaz: What's at Stake
Thomas Linzey and Richard Grossman of the Democracy School.
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Lower courts interpret Citizens United decision

SPEECHNOW.ORG v FEC

In a March 26, 2010 opinion, SpeechNow.org v. FEC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision not only prevented the government from restricting corporate contributions to political campaigns, but also prohibits lawmakers from limiting donations to the political lobbying groups. The "D.C. Circuit is an intermediate appellate court that has been captured by right-wing judicial appointees of President George W. Bush and his predecessors (three of the five justices in the majority served briefly on that court before being promoted to the U.S. Supreme Court).

The SpeechNow.org v. FEC decision made it possible for corporations to obfuscate their political spending by funneling their money through the cleverly-named outside interest groups that have populated the 2010 election landscape, such as the “American Action Network” and “American Crossroads.” Thanks to SpeechNow.org v. FEC, corporations have been allowed to hide behind these groups rather than directly and transparently spending money on campaign advertising.

Corporations Can Now Hide Behind a PAC, but Still Avoid Limits on Political Spending?

While Citizens United permitted Political Action Committees (and corporations) to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, SpeechNow.org has now lifted the amount of money that can flow INTO these PACs. This is especially problematic because a major justification in Citizens United for treating corporate political spending as "speech" was the belief that shareholders could monitor where CEOs were directing a corporation's political expenditures. Under the D.C. Circuit's interpretation of Citizens United, a corporation can obfuscate its expenditures by filtering them through a PAC, but still enjoy the freedom to spend unlimited amounts supporting political campaigns.

Facts of SpeechNow.org v FEC

The suit was brought by the SpeechNow.org, an "independent speech group" formed by Club for Growth Executive Director David Keating to challenge campaign finance laws. SpeechNow sought to challenge a Federal Elections Committee (FEC) determination that the group would have to register as a Political Action Committee (PAC) and adhere to contribution limits established by federal law. In particular, the group took issue with a federal law limiting an individual's contribution to a PAC at $5000 per year.

The D.C. Circuit Court found that, under Citizens United, the federal law's limitations on an individual's contributions to a PAC violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Further, the D.C. Circuit noted, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision suggested that the only governmental interest sufficient to overcome the First Amendment "right" to spend is to prevent corruption; but in the immediate case, the government has no anti-corruption interest with respect to individual expenditures.

Despite its victory, Speech Now took issue with the ruling that it would still have to comply with the disclosure requirements that apply to 527 Political Action Committees (527 PACs must disclose their donors, unlike groups formed under the 501(c) section of the tax code). Speech Now appealed this sub-part of the decision, but the Supreme Court denied cert.

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Should Scalia and Thomas have heard the Citizens United case?

On the first anniversary of the Citizens United decision, Common Cause sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the Department of Justice investigate possible conflicts of interest that would have prevented Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia from making an impartial decision in the case. Common Cause cites the Justices' appearances at secretive invitation-only retreats sponsored by billionaire conservative funder David Koch, whose political aims were advanced by the decision. Common Cause also points to the fact that the decision aided Justice Thomas' wife, Virginia Thomas, by enabling her Liberty Central group (which was formed to take advantage of the Citizens United ruling and which also has ties to Koch) to raise and spend unlimited corporate funds, activities that benefit the Thomas' financial interests.

Federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 455(a), provides that any judge "shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." The purpose of recusal is not only to prevent actual bias, but to maintain the integrity of the judicial system by avoiding the mere appearance of impropriety or bias. If the Attorney General investigates and finds grounds for disaqualification for either Justice, Common Cause is asking that the Solicitor General file a Rule 60(b) motion with the full Supreme Court seeking to vacate the judgment.

Read the Common Cause letter here. The Center for Media and Democracy attended the Common Cause-sponsored demonstrations near the Koch brother's retreat in Rancho Mirage in to help raise awareness of this issue and the enormous influence the Kochs are exerting on public policy.

See also legal scholar Jonathan Turley's reasoned take on Common Cause's effort here.

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Quotes

In his final remarks before leaving the Senate, Arlen Spector said:

"Congress should act to try to stop the Supreme Court from further eroding the Constitutional mandate of separation of power. The Court has been eating Congress’s lunch by invalidating legislation with judicial activism after nominees commit under oath in confirmation proceedings to respect Congressional fact finding and precedents. The recent decision in Citizens United is illustrative. Ignoring a massive Congressional record and reversing recent decisions, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito repudiated their confirmation testimony and provided the key votes to permit corporations and unions to secretly pay for political advertising - effectively undermining the basic democratic principle of the power of one person/one vote. Roberts promised to just call balls and strikes and then moved the bases."


Associate Supreme Court Justice (and then- Solicitor General) Elena Kagen, argued on behalf of the Obama Administration and in favor of the constitutionality of limiting the amount of money corporations can spend in elections. She noted that injecting unlimited corporate profits into elections is:

"inherently likely to corrode the political system, both by actually corrupting public office holders and by creating the appearance of corruption."
"Ignoring important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent, the Court has given corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal campaigns. Just six years ago, the Court said that the prohibition on corporations and unions dipping into their treasuries to influence campaigns was ‘firmly embedded in our law.’ Yet this Court has just upended that prohibition, and a century’s worth of campaign finance law designed to stem corruption in government."
"What a terrible day for American democracy. With this 5-4 decision, a deeply divided Supreme Court has essentially given corporations free rein to drown out the voices of the American people, rejecting the sacred democratic principle of ‘one person, one vote.'"
  • In an earlier era, confronted with rising corporate power, an American president noted:
"Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money powers of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregate in the hands of a few, and the Republic is destroyed.” --Abraham Lincoln
Why Shouldn't Corporations Have Unlimited Rights?

On the Bill Moyers Journal on September 4, 2009, Trevor Potter, former counsel to Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, responded this way:

Well, if you just look at the numbers here you are dealing with a world we just have never seen in elections. Exxon Mobil has a political action committee, which means voluntary contributions given by shareholders and executives, about 900 thousand dollars in the last cycle. It made last year 85 billion dollars.
Now, there's just a world of difference in the resources available if you say to a corporation, "You can spend money to defeat global-- candidates who are in favor of global warming legislation." If coal companies can go out and say, "If you don't sign our pledge to support coal we're going to defeat you. We're going to spend money against you." You take those enormous economic resources and you use them for something that we've never seen before. That I think is the radical nature.

(Potter is the founding president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, and he is a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, which was created to regulate election campaigns.)

Ed. note. The figure above was developed prior to the Supreme Court's decision which will cause billions more dollars will flow into elections and undermine our democracy.

President Obama Addresses Issue in State of the Union Address
"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people."

From the text of Obama's State of the Union address; full text at The New York Times

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Is Corporate Personhood Actually Part of America's Jurisprudence?

In an interview with Alternet, author and historian Thom Hartmann discusses the history of corruption that led to the development of so-called "corporate personhood" in the late-19th century. "Corporate personhood" is the theory of jurisprudence that holds that corporations enjoy the same Constitutional rights as human beings.

In the interview (and in his book Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became People -- And How You Can Fight Back), Hartmann describes how the 1886 U.S. Supreme Court case that supposedly established corporate personhood, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, actually did nothing of the sort. The case established "corporate personhood" not based on the majority's actual opinion, but because a corporatist Clerk of Courts mislabeled the case headnotes. Hartmann also identified a clearly corrupt 9th Circuit judge, Steven J. Field, who made a deal with the railroads (the largest corporations of the time) to try establishing a corporate personhood jurisprudence, and sent cases to the Supreme Court to advance this agenda.

Since this mistaken interpretation, corporations have tried to advance the concept of "corporate personhood," or corporate constitutional rights. Since the 1970s, when the Supreme Court adopted the construst of "commercial speech," corporations have focused increasingly on the First Amendment. Their most recent success and most devastating from the standpoint of its effect on the rights of citizens is the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

Read the full interview with Thom Hartmann here.

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How to Amend the Constitution

How do you amend the U.S. Constitution?

1. Traditional legal answer: A constitutional amendment can be proposed by either a "yea" vote by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or a vote by two-thirds of the state legislatures to request a national convention. (The latter method has not yet succeeded.) Any proposed amendment that passes this hurdle then requires three-fourths of the states (38 states) to ratify it. These methods for amendments are described in Article V of the Constitution. (Twelve amendments were approved in the last century.)
2. Modern legal realist answer: The Constitution is more frequently "amended" by a vote of at least five unelected elites on the Supreme Court who re-interpret its provisions, and change the law by judicial fiat (such as the deeply flawed Supreme Court decision dictating that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as real people or that spending money should be considered the same as freedom of speech). The current court has six justices appointed by Republican presidents and three by Democratic presidents.

But how can an ordinary person really help change the Constitution in this day and age? Together, we can help create momentum to pressure legislators and influence the courts through passing local and state resolutions to restore the rights of people to control and regulate corporations, town by town, city by city, and state by state. You can take action to support grassroots efforts to amend the Constitution.

For example, at least 35 states have a ballot initiative process that, in general, allows a relatively small number of residents to get an issue on the ballot directly for a vote in that state. Successful ballot measures can create pressure and demonstrate the power of citizens to demand changes. If you live in one of the following states with a ballot initiative process, you might be able to help:

Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, or Wyoming

Before such initiatives can be pursued, local resolutions are essential to help build awareness and strength. Even if your state does not have an initiative process, you could still help press for town and city council resolutions affirming the rights of people to regulate corporations, or press the state legislature to place the issue on a statewide ballot. If you want to volunteer to help in your city or state, you can volunteer here.

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Center for Media and Democracy Projects

About CMD

The Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes this resource, believes we must discuss the problems with the Citizens United decision from the standpoint of core principles--fundamental principles of American democracy and what it means for people to have the right to vote and have representatives who represent us in government, and not big corporations. It is our view that this decision goes to the heart of the key problem with our government: that it is far more responsive to corporate interests than to the needs of the people who live and work in this country. And, we do not believe that this major failure can be addressed through some minor tweaks to the law. Aiming for such an amendment is a powerful organizing tool that can help unite a variety of issues people care about, which have their roots in excessive corporate influence, and can open a path to create pressure for a range of solutions to help restore our democracy and achieve policies to serve the basic interests of the vast majority of the American people.

CMD Files Amicus Brief Defending Election Disclosure, Questioning Corporate Rights in Wisconsin.

The Center for Media and Democracy has filed a brief with the Wisconsin Supreme Court defending proposed disclosure rules passed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, rules that are being challenged by the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity. In the brief, CMD also questions whether rights granted by Wisconsin’s Constitution can be legitimately extended to corporations. The case was argued in September 2011, and we are awaiting a decision by the court. (Controversial Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, David Prosser, recused himself from the case.)

Right-Wing Groups Challenge Expanded Campaign Disclosure Rules

At issue in the lawsuit are rules passed by Wisconsin’s election board last summer that would expand the scope of campaign ads requiring public disclosure of the ad’s funders. Under the old rules, ads that did not explicitly say “vote for X” or “vote against Y” were considered “issue ads” that could avoid disclosure laws, even if the ad was an obvious appeal to vote for or against a candidate. In September 2010, Americans for Prosperity brought suit and the Wisconsin Supreme Court enjoined enforcement of the rule, allowing the 2010 elections to take place without strong disclosure regulations. Secret spending increased dramatically in those elections, and citizens only knew the origins of about half of the dollars spent in 2010. Overall spending also increased with groups taking advantage of the Citizens United ruling, which allowed for-profit and not-for-profit groups to spend unlimited money influencing elections under the guise of free speech. The Wisconsin Supreme Court will now consider whether to lift the injunction and allow the rule to stand, or side with Americans for Prosperity and deem it unconstitutional.

In the brief, CMD notes that weak disclosure rules create an environment that undermines justifications for reduced restrictions on "independent expenditures." The U.S. Supreme Court has reasoned that political ads or expenditures by "independent" groups are of little value to candidates if they are not directly coordinated with the candidate. On that point, CMD discusses how new groups forming post-Citizens United are operating in a highly-coordinated manner, and reference Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's request for independent expenditures in his February conversation with the phony "David Koch."

Do Corporate "Rights" Exist Under the Wisconsin Constitution?

CMD also argues that the Declaration of Rights in the Wisconsin Constitution may not extend to corporations. Section 1 in Wisconsin’s Declaration of Rights, Article I, states that “all people are born equally free and independent,” suggesting that all rights contained in the article, including free speech rights, are available only to those who are “born,” and not to artificial entities that come into existence through “incorporation.” The brief notes that “the corporation’s founders may open a bottle of champagne to toast the occasion, and perhaps even pass around cigars, but it seems unlikely that anyone would throw a baby shower.”

Read our article on the brief here.

Read the entire brief here.

Email brendan@prwatch.org with questions or comments on the brief.


CMD Director Lisa Graves Talks Koch on "Democracy Now!"

CMD Director Lisa Graves on "Democracy Now!"
In February, the Center for Media and Democracy's Executive Director Lisa Graves appeared on "Democracy Now!" to discuss David Koch and his influence on the radical politics arising in Wisconsin and elsewhere to bust the unions and privatize public institutions.

"This is a situation in which a billionaire is exerting extraordinary influence, far more influence than tens of thousands of Wisconsin residents who have come out to protest his outrageous effort to destroy the unions here," Lisa said. She reminded viewers of the history of the Koch family and their political activities in the U.S.: "David Koch's father was a co-founder of the radical 1950s group the John Birch Society which opposed civil rights laws," Lisa stated. David Koch ran for president once back in 1980 on the Libertarian ticket, on a campaign platform much further to the right than Ronald Reagan, in which he opposed Social Security, a minimum wage and other safety-net programs. After he lost that race, he spent the last 30 years forming a series of groups to advance his agenda of far right-wing positions. You can watch the entire video of the interview here.

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2010 Midterm Elections

The first election season after the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2010 Citizens United decision was the most expensive in U.S. history. The decision made it permissible for corporations, unions, and trade associations to contribute unlimited amounts of money directly from their general treasuries towards influencing the outcome of political campaigns. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, at least $3.5 billion was spent by candidates, political parties, and interest groups, with the number expected to increase to $4 billion by the time all receipts are counted.

Republicans were most successful in the post-Citizens United campaign landscape, with much of the unlimited corporate money being channeled through newly-formed political advocacy groups with innocent-sounding names like American Action Network or American Crossroads. Even groups that existed in past elections like Club for Growth were bolstered by the Supreme Court decision and were able to raise unprecedented amounts of corporate money to influence elections like never before. The Sunlight Foundation estimates that 40% of outside interest group spending was made possible by the Citizens United decision. Conservative groups spent nearly $1 billion more than liberal groups in the 2010 election cycle.

What's more, many of those groups organized under the 501(c) section of the tax code, allowing them to raise and spend these unlimited funds without disclosing their donors. The Supreme Court's 2007 FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life decision allows 501(c) groups to run "issue-oriented" political ads (ostensibly attacking a candidate's position on an issue, but obviously telling viewers to vote against the candidate) without disclosing the identities of the individuals and corporations who fund their efforts.

Significant Secret Spending Increases

Outside special interest group spending was at least four times greater in 2010 than in the last midterm election-- spending by these secretive outside groups jumped to $294.2 million in the 2010 election cycle from just $68.9 million in the 2006 cycle.

According to a January 2011 report from Public Citizen,

  • Nearly half of the money spent ($138.5 million, or 47.1 percent) came from only 10 groups;
  • Groups that did not provide any information about their sources of money collectively spent $135.6 million - 46.1 percent of the total spent by outside groups during the election cycle;
  • Two “Crossroads” groups formed by Republican strategist Karl Rove combined to spend $38.2 million, more than any single group. Next was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at $31.2 million; and
  • Of 75 congressional contests in which partisan power changed hands, spending by outside groups favored the winning candidate in 60 contests.

While Americans still have only limited information about where these outside groups received their funding, they had even less information before they cast their vote in November. As of October 2010, only two of the top ten spending interest groups had disclosed any information about their funders (according to another Public Citizen report. What's more, of the $70.7 million of donations that had been disclosed through October 21, 2010, 0.12% of the individuals donating were responsible for 66.8% of the reported contributions.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan campaign-finance-reform group, tells TIME Magazine that "shadow Republican groups formed by longtime party officials and party operatives are raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in this election. . . most of which is going to come in the form of secret undisclosed contributions." (Fred Wertheimer is the attorney who helped expose the illegal corporate campaign contributions funding the Nixon campaign).

According to the Washington Post, "one reason Democrats have benefited less from interest-group spending may be the party's - and President Obama's - message against the role of moneyed interests in Washington. And in his 2008 campaign, Obama discouraged such independent interest groups on the left from forming." Another reason, of course, is that large corporations tend to sponsor Republicans because the GOP is more likely to favor corporate shareholder's interests.

Coordinated, Independent Efforts

Many of the pro-Republican "independent" groups are not independent at all-- instead, they operate in a tightly coordinated and interconnected manner. For example, American Action Network and American Crossroads share office space, Republican Governor Association (RGA) chair Haley Barbour is an advisor to the American Action Network, American Action Network Chair Fred Malek is a top RGA fundraiser, and members of these groups and others regularly meet to coordinate strategy. The groups began their coordination efforts in meetings at Karl Rove’s home, and have given themselves the nickname the "Weaver Terrace group," named for the Washington street on which Rove lives. See this NPR graphic describing some of the networks.

Americans Want Disclosure and Campaign Limits!

On October 28, the New York Times reports that:

"The latest New York Times/CBS News poll found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans say it is important (including 6 in 10 who say “very important”) to limit the amount of money campaigns can spend. While majorities of each party’s registered voters agree that limits are important, Democrats (68 percent) and independents (59 percent) are more likely than Republicans (52 percent) to say it is “very” important.

Americans are even more supportive of full disclosure by campaigns with 92 percent saying it is important for campaigns to be required by law to disclose how much money they have raised, where the money came from and how it was used. There was little difference in the opinions of each party’s voters on this question."

Can't Congress do anything?

Political efforts to counteract the effects of Citizens United, like the DISCLOSE Act, have been unsuccessful thanks to united Republican opposition. The democrat-sponsored DISCLOSE Act would have required organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the identity of large donors, and to reveal their identities in any political ads they fund. It would also have barred foreign corporations, government contractors and TARP recipients from making political expenditures. The Act passed the House, but failed to pass the Senate in September due to united Republican support. The final vote was 59 to 39, short of the 60 votes required. All Democrats voted to support the bill; two Republicans did not vote. During the election, a coalition of Democrats asked companies to pledge not to use corporate dollars on political campaigns, but few signed on.

Newly-elected Tea Party-backed candidates have vowed to block any campaign finance reform. Zach Carter theorizes they oppose efforts to crack down on secret corporate spending because the Tea Party's appeal "is based on its populist, grassroots image. If anybody knew that secret right-wing millionaires were bankrolling the entire operation, the “movement” would lose its luster."

Learn More!

For more about the groups who are trying to buy our elections with corporate dollars, please read our Special Report on Outrageous Election Spin and Misinformation, and follow the links at the end of the Report to our independent reporting on anonymous corporate campaign spending.


Also read our Sourcewatch articles in progress on groups such as American Crossroads, American Action Network, the Koch Brothers, the 60 Plus Association, Club for Growth, the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity, the Committee for Truth in Politics, and the other cleverly-named groups behind the ads, mailers, and robocalls. If you cannot find updated information about a group via the search toolbar on the left, please let us know.

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Featured Campaigns

Constellation of Public Interest Groups Marks the Terrible Anniversary of the Citizens United Decision

January 21, 2011 marked the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. To mark the event, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), Public Citizen, People for the American Way, MovetoAmend.org (MTA), and FreeSpeechforPeople.org (FSfP) delivered over 750,000 signatures calling on Congress to amend the Constitution and reverse this terrible decision. The Center also worked with the Coffee Party and the Backbone Campaign to organize a legal summit in DC to address the decision and its implications for numerous issues affecting Americans' lives and the American Dream. CMD's Executive Director, Lisa Graves, was asked to speak to these issues along with People for the American Way, Public Citizen, and Common Cause, and moderated a panel presenting amendment strategies by MovetoAmend and FSfP and others, and also participated in a panel on how to find common ground on these issues across the political divide. The events were broadcast on C-SPAN. The Center emphasized the need for a constitutional amendment, and that legislation like the DISCLOSE Act alone was not enough: "Disclosure is important, but is no substitute for the reforms we need. The problem is not just lack of disclosure but the corrupting influence by corporations on elections."[1]. CMD is a co-founder of MTA's grassroots efforts, which is over 100,000 voices strong, and also works in the constellation of public interest groups, including People For, Public Citizen, Common Cause, FSfP, and other national groups to try to help improve coordination among these efforts to amend the Constitution.


How else can you get involved?

Organize locally! View resources on how to get more involved here, here, and here.

'Join the movement!' Join the Center for Media and Democracy and almost a million Americans in calling for a constitutional amendment. You can sign up to help with referenda against the idea behind Citizens United that corporations are entitled to constitutional "rights" and the pernicious notion that spending money equals speecch and thus cannot be regulated at Move to Amend and Movement for the People. If you are interested in focusing on fighting corporate constitutional rights you can also help support Free Speech for People. For local activities, check out the Move to Amend events page and calendar, or search for events on the Movement for the People website.

'Sign the Petition!' To stay up to date on the latest news on these and related issues, let the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) know that you agree our laws should put "Americans Before Corporations" by clicking here if you agree that:

  • It's wrong to give corporations the same rights as people, especially when it comes to our elections.
  • A corporation isn't really a person.
  • Corporations are created by statute to help maximize profit and limit legal liability.
  • Corporations can't go to jail when they hurt or kill someone; they're different from real people.
  • And they just aren't entitled to all the same rights that are constitutionally guaranteed to human beings.
  • Plus, corporations have so much more money than most ordinary citizens that their influence drowns out the voices of we the people in our democracy.
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Legal Arguments

Key Documents in Citizens United

The Supreme Court's decision, January 21, 2010

  • Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion for the 5-4 majority (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) [2]
    • Chief Justice Roberts concurrence (with whom Justice Alito joins) [3]
    • Justice Scalia concurrence (with whom Justice Alito joins and with whom Justice Stevens joins, in part) [4]
    • Justice Thomas' concurrence, in part, and dissent, in part [5]
  • The dissenting option written by Justice John Paul Stevens (for Justices Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor) [6]

Oral Argument

Briefs by the Parties

Select Briefs in Support of Regulating Corporations

Select Briefs in Opposition to Regulating Corporations

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Constitutional Protections for Corporations, but Not Women?

In a January 2011 interview, Justice Antonin Scalia told California Lawyer Magazine that the 14th Amendment's equal protection provisions do not apply to women (or homosexuals), arguing that gender discrimination is constitutional and can only be outlawed by the legislature. Under Scalia's strict "originalist" interpretation of the constitution, he refuses to infer that women be included in the constitution's 14th Amendment protections, as the drafters of the amendment only intended that it apply to African-Americans (despite the Court in 1971 finding that the 14th Amendment did indeed apply to women, in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71). Because Scalia found that constitutional protections applied to corporations in Citizens United, though, many commentators have expressed outrage over this apparent anomaly. Others have written in support of Scalia's originalist position.


Scalia's originalist interpretation of the 14th Amendment to exclude women but protect corporations may be unjust, but if one looks exclusively at the intent of the drafters, it is consistent. There are indications that Congress intended the 14th Amendment to also apply to corporations. In San Mateo County v. Southern Pac. R.R., 116 U.S. 138 (1885), a member of the Joint Congressional Committee that drafted the 14th amendment argued that Congress intended the word "person" to include "legal" persons (corporations) as well as "natural" persons, and the Court accepted his argument. However, while Congress in 1868 did not mention women when drafting the 14th Amendment, they also did not mention Latinos, Jews, or Asians; under Scalia's strict originalism, then, these groups would not be afforded the constitutional right of equal protection under the law. While many have expressed anger over Scalia's comments, their dismay may be better directed at originalist interpretations of constitutional rights.

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Did you know...

The ban on corporations using their vast treasuries to corrupt elections is America's longest standing law limiting spending in federal elections, passed in 1907 over 100 years ago.

The Supreme Court's decision took the first step to undo these wise distinctions between corporations and individuals by over-turning federal laws. The Citizens United case struck down important provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation for federal elections, and by implication, similar rules in many state laws. According to the brief Senators Russell Feingold and John McCain submitted along with Representatives Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan, your state's laws banning or limiting corporate electioneering might be invalidated too.

Are you a resident of one of these states? Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, or Wyoming.

If so, protections for fair elections in your state may be rolled back as well. But you can help take steps to do something about it by clicking here.