League of Women Voters hosts panel on Supreme Court decision

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 | 11:30 p.m. CDT; updated 8:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 27, 2010

COLUMBIA – The League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County held a panel discussion featuring MU law and political science professors to commemorate Constitution Day.

This year’s event, the fourth annual, was: "If You Prick Them, Do They Bleed? Corporations as Persons." Professors Paul Litton, Richard Reuben and Christina Wells of the MU School of Law and Professor Marvin Overby of the MU political science department participated in the discussion.


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Their conversation focused on a recent Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled 5-4 that corporations would not face limits on independent expenditures in political campaigns. Independent expenditures support political candidates or causes without donating money directly to the candidate's campaign fund.

The panelists discussed the case and its implications for more than an hour and then took questions from the audience. 

Reuben spoke about the Supreme Court’s history of dealing with campaign finance reform cases over the past three decades before explaining this case's implication on future campaigns.

“In 2004, $4.3 billion was spent on all federal elections," he said. "The stakes have only become greater, and the amount of money spent has gone up.”

Litton criticized the court's majority opinion. He said that because of the court’s decision, Congress could not restrict speech based on the corporate identity of the speaker, which he found troubling.

“A worrisome aspect of corporations spending huge amounts of money on campaigns is that they can dominate political discussion right before elections,” he said.

Overby disagreed with some of Litton’s points.

“A large body of Anglo-American jurisprudence says that corporations are either persons or should be treated as persons,” he said.  

Overby also said that corporations do not spend as much on campaigns as critics believe. He said Federal Election Commission data indicates that corporate political action committees provided one-third of the funding for all House campaigns and one-fifth of the funding for those in the Senate, leaving the majority of the funding to be financed by individuals.

Overby also said the Citizens United case could potentially benefit Democrats more than Republicans.

He said the AFL-CIO filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Citizens United. Unions, which are also impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision, donated almost exclusively to Democrats while corporations provided funding for both parties to maximize their political access.

Wells also said the Supreme Court has allowed restrictions against speakers in the past, including injunctions on protesters.

“The Supreme Court overruled previous campaign finance legislation because it impermissibly suppressed speech and singled out speakers based on identity,” she said.

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