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Panel Explores Impact of Citizens United Ruling

March 23, 2012

Three scholars exchanged a range of views on the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission during a panel discussion on March 23.

The ruling sparked a seismic shift that gives corporations unchecked power to decide the outcome of elections, said Frank Askin, distinguished professor of law, Robert E. Knowlton Scholar and director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers-Newark School of Law.

By allowing corporations to take unlimited funds from their treasuries for political donations, the Supreme Court overturned 103 years’ worth of laws designed to prevent corporations from influencing elections, Askin said, noting that expenditures in the 2012 presidential race have – as of March 8 – exceeded the 2008 tally by 234 percent.

So far, however, there has not been a broad increase in corporate donations to political campaigns, Dean Roger Dennis said.
When the CEO of Target made a large donation to the campaign of ultra-conservative Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, the firestorm of protest that followed included a broadly supported boycott, Dennis said.
“Corporations are somewhat leery of controversy,” Dennis said.

Yet Dennis critiqued Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in the case, notably an argument that shareholders can exercise control over political donations made by corporations.

“It’s not something shareholders get to decide directly,” Dennis said, adding that shareholder efforts to establish policies for political donations by corporations have yet to bear fruit.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has been petitioned to adopt rules that would require corporate boards to establish policies for the disclosure of political contributions and for deciding how donations will be allotted, Dennis said.
Professor Laurie T. Baulig, director of the Center for the Liberal Arts and Society at Franklin and Marshall College, said the Citizens United ruling benefited business groups like the Chamber of Commerce more than individual corporations.

Baulig said the Chamber of Commerce had wooed the Supreme Court for years to dismantle provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms.

One point on which the panelists agreed is that in agreeing to hear the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court chose to weigh in on a matter that could easily have been resolved under existing law.

The law school and Philadelphia Lawyers’ chapters of the American Constitution Society co-sponsored the discussion.  Click here to view the video.