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Jessica Levinson Headshot

Happy Second Birthday, Citizens United: Now On To Your Terrible Twos

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Dear Citizens United,

Happy birthday. I won't wish you many happy returns of the day. I both hope there aren't many more birthdays, and if there are, I trust they won't be happy ones, at least not for democracy.

But congratulations, you've made it, against all odds. You started as a relatively narrow little case, asking only whether a non-profit corporation could use general treasury funds to create and promote a hit piece against then-presidential candidate Hilary Clinton. You, Citizens United, merely asked the Supreme Court to find the now-vanishing McCain-Feingold law could not be validly applied to you.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to that narrow decision, the Supreme Court decided to ask its own question. The Court apparently was not particularly concerned with centuries of tradition which dictates that they resolve the questions asked by the parties, as opposed to asking themselves a question they wish to answer.

So the Supreme Court sent you back, and asked for more information on whether McCain-Feingold could validly be applied to any corporation. You'll forgive my lack of surprise when I discovered that the Court decided to answer its own question in the affirmative. As so many of us know by now, the Court ruled that for purposes of campaign finance restrictions corporations must be treated as identical to people. If a restriction cannot be placed on a person, then it cannot be applied to a corporation. The Court also held that expenditures -- no matter how large -- made independently of candidates have no potential for corrupting candidates. I'll pause here for laughter.

Thanks to some inappropriate legal maneuvers by the highest court in the land you've made quite a splash, Citizens United. No one can say you haven't made your presence felt in the last two years.

I'll give you, Citizens United, credit for the creation and rise of so-called "Super PACs." These charmingly termed groups are independent-expenditure-only committees that can essentially raise and spend unlimited sums in an effort to elect or defeat candidates. Because of some quirks related to non-profit corporations, Super PACs often need not disclose their donors.

So, Citizens United, if a dark day should come, just remember, you've changed the face of American politics. There is now a shadow campaign finance system of unlimited, and undisclosed money. Don't let anyone tell you this hasn't made a difference. Well, come to think of it, the enormous corporate spending may drown those who try to tell you that.

But finally, a note of caution as you enter your terrible twos -- and I do expect this will be a rather trying time -- not for you, but for many in that segment of the population we call voters. We're certainly talking about you, but not all publicity is good publicity.

Very truly yours,
A birthday non-reveler.

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