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Up next? Ban on corporate political donations

The Supreme Court, fresh from its new ruling expanding the political donation options of private individuals, faces a choice this week about its current view on campaign contributions to candidates by corporations.  For weeks, the Court has been sitting on a case that would test a state’s flat ban on corporate donations, and is now set to look at that case in the wake of Wednesday’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

The Court, according to its electronic docket, is scheduled to consider at its private Conference on Friday the case of Iowa Right to Life Committee v. Tooker.  That case has been ready for the Court, technically, since November, but so far no action has been taken.

If the Court’s usual practice is followed, it will have at least three options: agree to hear the case to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s ban on corporate donations, deny review and thus leave intact a federal appeals court ruling upholding that ban, or tell the lower courts to reconsider based on the McCutcheon ruling.

In 2003, in the case of FEC v. Beaumont, the Court upheld the long-standing federal ban on corporations, at least so far as that provision applied to non-profit corporations.  In the new case, the Iowa Right to Life Committee urged the Court to overrule the Beaumont decision, arguing that it cannot be squared with the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

In Citizens United, the Court barred the government from singling out corporations for less favorable treatment in campaign finance, although that decision involved only corporate spending, not corporate contributions.   Since 1976, the Court has continuously given campaign spending more First Amendment protection than campaign donations.  It did not disturb that distinction on Wednesday.

The rulings in Beaumont and Citizens United, the Iowa organization contended, cannot be reconciled because the basis for the Citizens United decision was that using the corporate form when taking part in campaign financing does not cause corruption of the election process, while the Beaumont decision was based on that very same corruption rationale.  The Beaumont decision, the petition asserted, thus is on “shaky ground.”

If the Court now chooses to send the Iowa case back to lower courts for a new look under the McCutcheon ruling, that might be taken as a signal that the First Amendment discussion the Court used on Wednesday should be applied to corporate donation bans, too.

The Iowa organization has a second issue it asked the Court to review: whether the Iowa ban on corporations is a form of unconstitutional discrimination, because a similar ban does not apply in that state to labor union contributions.

A simple denial of review of the Iowa petition might mean either that the Court is not yet ready to confront the corporate donations issue, or that it found that this particular case did not present the issue in a sufficiently clear way.  A denial of review does not set a precedent.

The Court’s action on the Iowa case may be known as early as next Monday.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Up next? Ban on corporate political donations, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 2, 2014, 6:12 PM),