For better or worse, Citizens United held that “corporations are people too.” Actually, US District Judge James Cacheris said that “…there is no distinction between an individual and a corporation with respect to political speech.”
In the worldview of today’s political/legal landscape, money is speech. Unfortunately, few real people can match the amount of money/speech a corporation can ante up.
Not everyone in the legal community agrees with this ruling. Several judges have ruled just the opposite. For instance, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit recently upheld a Minnesota law banning direct contributions. The judges said that Citizens United did not address a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld a ban on direct corporate contributions. That decision is precedent but was not directly addressed in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, leaving it in a sort of legal limbo. Apparently, corporations are people too, but not in all aspects.
“It is not,” said another federal judge, “up to lower courts to overturn Supreme Court precedents.” But that is exactly what the attorneys for two men accused of illegally reimbursing contributions from employees asked of Judge Cacheris, and it is precisely what he did, thereby stepping off into a new world of legal mystery and wrangling.
As written, Citizens United had applied only to corporate spending on campaign activities by independent groups, not to direct contributions to the candidates themselves. This ruling is an unfortunate, if inevitable, interpretation of a badly botched decision. It is difficult to understand why this Supreme Court thought it necessary to expressly rule that corporations are people too, or that money is speech. It is equally difficult to understand why Judge Cacheris felt it necessary to expand that decision to direct contributions to candidates.