SCOTUS Ruling in Citizens United Could Open Door for Corporate Spending in RI Elections

Today’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission could have a tumultuous effect on Rhode Island politics and allow Republicans to lean on corporate support to become competitive in state races.

In a divided 5-4 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the conservatives in ruling that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend without limits for or against a candidate’s election.

Without having read the entire 183 pages of the decision and the dissents, it appears to me that this decision overturns Rhode Island’s current ban on the use of corporate dollars in a state election.

In other words, the decision appears to make plausible the following scenario.

Textron could spend $500,000 on television ads that urge voters to vote for John Robitaille for Governor.

I agree with Justice Stevens who writes, in relevant part:

The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the politicalsphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant.Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

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5 responses to “SCOTUS Ruling in Citizens United Could Open Door for Corporate Spending in RI Elections

  1. Here’s the relevant RI law.

    RIGL § 17-25-10.1 Political contributions – Limitations. –

    (h) It shall be unlawful for any corporation, whether profit or non-profit, domestic corporation or foreign corporation, as defined in § 7-1.2-106, or other business entity to make any campaign contribution or expenditure, as defined in § 17-25-3, to or for any candidate, political action committee, or political party committee, or for any candidate, political action committee, or political party committee to accept any campaign contribution or expenditure from a corporation or other business entity. Any contribution made in the personal name of any employee of a corporation or other business entity, for which the employee received or will receive reimbursement from the corporation or other business entity, shall be considered as a contribution by the corporation or other business entity, in violation of this section.

  2. It would still cut both ways, Matt. Corporation X could spend $500,000 in support of Patrick Kennedy’s campaign.

    I actually agree that anyone, person or corporate entity, should have the right to express support for or against any candidate utilizing whatever means at their disposal.

    But I also hold the opinion that there shouldn’t be a limit on what individuals can contribute to an individual campaign so less restrictions is a good thing in my opinion.

    And what’s worse…corporations spending billions of dollars persuading legislators in Washington or corporations spending billions of dollars directly soliciting citizens to vote for/against a particular candidate?

  3. Before the SCOTUS decision, it was certainly unclear whether direct corporate spending – in PAC form or not in PAC form – advocating for the specific and direct election or defeat of a candidate was permitted under the RI General Laws (ie. could Textron could spend $500,000 on television ads that urge voters to vote for John Robitaille for Governor.)

    For example, RIGL § 17-25-10.1 states that (h) It shall be unlawful for any corporation, whether profit or non-profit, domestic corporation or foreign corporation, as defined in § 7-1.2-106, or other business entity to make any campaign contribution or expenditure, as defined in § 17-25-3, to or for any candidate, political action committee, or political party committee, or for any candidate, political action committee, or political party committee to accept any campaign contribution or expenditure from a corporation or other business entity. Any contribution made in the personal name of any employee of a corporation or other business entity, for which the employee received or will receive reimbursement from the corporation or other business entity, shall be considered as a contribution by the corporation or other business entity, in violation of this section.

    On the other hand, RIGL § 17-25-10 states that (b) It shall be lawful for any person, not otherwise prohibited by law and not acting in concert with any other person or group, to expend personally from that person’s own funds a sum which is not to be repaid to him or her for any purpose not prohibited by law to support or defeat a candidate; provided, that any person making the expenditure shall be required to report all of his or her expenditures and expenses, if the total of the money so expended exceeds one hundred dollars ($100) within a calendar year, to the board of elections within seven (7) days of making the expenditure and to the campaign treasurer of the candidate or political party committee on whose behalf the expenditure or contribution was made, or to his or her deputy, within seven (7) days of making the expenditure, who shall cause the expenditures and expenses to be included in his or her reports to the board of elections. Whether a person is “acting in concert with any other person or group” for the purposes of this subsection shall be determined by application of the standards set forth in § 17-25-23.

    And note that this second statute prohibits independent expenditures when acting in concert with any person or group. This provision – in part – was deemed violative of the 1st Amendment by Judge Torres in a 2006 RI Federal Court case RI ACLU v. Begin, 431 F. Supp.2d 227 (2006) where the ACLU challenged contribution laws relative to ballot measures. Judge Pettine’s decision in Vote Choice, Inc. v. DiStefano, 814 F.Supp. 186 (1992) is also instructive relative to corporate expenditures and ballot measures (not candidates, take note, just ballot measures).

    Either way, the bottom line is that any uncertainty has now been made clear by the SCOTUS: Textron most certainly can now spend $500,000 on television ads that urge voters to vote for John Robitaille for Governor or any other candidate for that matter.

  4. Pingback: Sen. Whitehouse Condemns SCOTUS Decision on Corporate Political Spending « Closing Argument: a blog on truth, justice, the law (and the politics in between)

  5. Pingback: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse Condemns Citizens United in Politico « Closing Argument: a blog on truth, justice, the law (and the politics in between)

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