'Citizens United' Case Gets Renewed Scrutiny A Montana case could lead the Supreme Court to take a second look at Citizens United, a campaign finance decision that politicians have been fighting about since it was handed down in 2010. Recently, some of the criticism has been aimed at Chief Justice John Roberts and his role in the case.

'Citizens United' Case Gets Renewed Scrutiny

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/155148102/155263947" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Some other news. The Supreme Court may soon revisit its landmark Citizens United ruling. That case gave corporations a green light to spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns. Now a Montana case could lead the high court to take a second look. And there are also questions - in Congress, at least - about the role of Chief Justice John Roberts in that case. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Politicians have battled on Capitol Hill over the Citizens United decision ever since the Supreme Court's ruling in January 2010. Days later, as President Obama delivered a State of the Union address in the House chamber, he scolded the Supreme Court justices, who sat right below him.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

WELNA: Indeed, much of the mountain of campaign money raised this year would not be allowed had it not been for a series of rulings from the court headed by Chief Justice John Roberts. And the huge share of that money is benefiting Republican candidates. On Friday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell praised the Roberts court at a meeting of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Now, you know, we haven't always agreed with decisions we've gotten in court, but on this issue the court's been pretty good. The courts have said Congress does not have the authority to muzzle political speech.

WELNA: In fact, in 2007 the Roberts court also partly overturned a four-year-old ruling that upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. That was only two years after Roberts had assured senators he respected the doctrine of stare decisis, a Latin term for giving much deference to previous court decisions. Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions says the court was right to tackle campaign finance.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: It was ripe. It had been out there for a number of years. The country needed an answer.

WELNA: But critics of the court say it took a narrow question - whether a TV-on-demand documentary about Democrat Hillary Clinton could be shown in the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential primaries - and answered it by vastly easing restrictions on corporate campaign spending.

SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: The court got way, way, way ahead of its skis here.

WELNA: That's Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's filed a friend of the court brief demanding the high court reverse its Citizens United decision.

WHITEHOUSE: It was a decision they were so eager to make, but now I think they're embarrassed by the wild discrepancy between the world as they presumed it in their written decision and the world as we see it around us, post-Citizens United.

WELNA: Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold law, voted to confirm Roberts as chief justice. McCain now has regrets.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I am more disappointed in him than any of the other four that voted to overturn McCain-Feingold.

WELNA: At his confirmation hearing nearly seven years ago, Roberts compared judges to umpires. They don't make the rules, he said, they apply them.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath.

WELNA: Former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter was the Republican chairing that hearing. Now a Democrat, Specter says Roberts has made a complete U-turn.

ARLEN SPECTER: There's no doubt that in Citizens United, Chief Justice Roberts did not follow what he described as modesty, non-activism, or not giving a jolt to the system. Citizens United was a tremendous jolt to the system.

WELNA: But Ilya Shapiro of the libertarian Cato Institute says the chief justice did adhere to stare decisis.

ILYA SHAPIRO: Chief Justice Roberts' opinion is a very clear exposition of the modern doctrine of stare decisis as it stands.

WELNA: Campaign finance expert Richard Hasen teaches at the University of California Irvine Law School. He says the question is not so much whether the Roberts court respected precedent.

RICHARD HASEN: I think the problem is more one of hypocrisy - that if you say that you're a neutral umpire and that you're going to give extra respect to precedents, and then you don't, then it looks hypocritical.

WELNA: Hasen predicts Citizens United will be overturned by a less conservative Supreme Court - some day. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.