What did the Court decide in Citizens United?

A sharply divided Supreme Court decided that the American people are powerless to stop corporations from using corporate funds to influence state and federal elections. The 5-4 decision ruled that the restrictions on corporate expenditures in elections contained in the federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (known as BCRA or “McCain-Feingold”) violated the First Amendment protections of free speech.

The ruling dramatically expands the new “corporate rights” doctrine that has transformed the First Amendment in recent years, and exposes an already-corrupted political process to a new flow of billions of dollars of corporate money.

The result in Citizens United is radical. To accomplish this, the majority – – Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito – – had to overrule two previous cases where the Court ruled correctly that Congress and the States may try to keep corporate money out of politics. In the Citizens United case, the Court cast aside a 2003 decision, McConnell v. FEC, where the Court upheld the very provision it now ruled unconstitutional, and a 1990 decision, Austin v. Chamber of Commerce, where the Court had ruled that a Michigan law limiting corporate expenditures in elections did not violate the First Amendment.

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