One of the first blockbuster Supreme Court decisions of the past 10 years will surely affect the election taking place at the beginning of the new decade. In January 2010, the court ruled 5-4 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to engage in independent spending to influence elections, overturning precedent to strike down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy discounted concerns that campaign spending would lead to corruption. “The fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt,” he explained, and “[t]he appearance of influence or access … will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” In a 90-page dissent read from the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens countered that “[a] democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
The decision sparked what was then a rare public breach of separation-of-powers etiquette: During his 2010 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama asserted that it would “open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections,” and Justice Samuel Alito responded by mouthing “Not true” from the audience.
Citizens United, together with an appeals court decision issued in its wake, led to the rise of so-called “super PACs,” political action committees that can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups and can engage in unlimited spending on political campaigns as long as they do not coordinate directly with the candidates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, super PACs spent $820,000,000 in the 2018 election cycle.