The reach of Citizens United v FEC just got longer, if only temporarily. Relying on the controversial ruling, a federal judge in Virginia threw out part of an indictment against two men accused of secretly reimbursing donors to Hillary Clinton with corporate cash. Judge James Cacheris ruled that Citizens United established that corporations have a right to donate to political campaigns, as well as to spend their own money:
A judge has ruled that the campaign finance law banning corporations from making contributions to federal candidates is unconstitutional. …
Cacheris says that under last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court case, corporations enjoy the same right as people to contribute to campaigns.
When Barack Obama accused the Supreme Court of overturning a century of precedent, he was very much incorrect. Citizens United only addressed about a decade’s worth of precedent that forbade corporate spending on political advertising, not contributions to candidates. Precedent prohibiting the latter does go back more than a century, however, and Cacheris’ decision would undo all of it, if upheld.
That’s a mighty big if, though. The appellate court will almost certainly take a dim view of that kind of interpretation from Citizens United. Either way, though, this issue will be on its way once more to the Supreme Court, which will have to decide whether to endorse this interpretation or to limit Citizens United to expenditures and exercise stare decisis on contributions. I’d call this a long shot to be upheld on any level, but it will make for an important — and entertaining — debate.
Since people will undoubtedly wonder, Cacheris is a Reagan appointee from 1981 and has been a senior jurist on the circuit since 1998.
Update: Gabriel Malor agrees with my skepticism and makes a couple of great points in an e-mail:
I’m glad you note that this district judge decision is an outlier and a long-shot. It was only 2003 when the Supreme Court upheld 7-2 the corporate direct contributions ban. See FEC v. Beaumont. It’s unlikely the Court has changed that determination, just because of Citizens United which involved a different issue. In fact, the Citizens United court explicitly passed on considering the idea.
HotAir readers might also note the unusual posture of the district court case. Unlike the typical challenge to federal election laws, this is a criminal case against Clinton fundraisers who are alleged to have violated federal elections laws. They’re raising as a defense the idea that the ban on direct corporate contributions is unconstitutional.
Update II: Aaron Worthing has much more in-depth analysis at Patterico, but he’s also skeptical that this will — or should be — upheld.