In 2011, a Reagan-appointed federal judge handed down a “Citizens United on steroids” decision, declaring that corporations had the right to give unlimited amounts of money directly to political candidates — rather than simply to outside groups such as super PACs. The decision was eventually reversed by a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and a petition to hear the case was pending before the Supreme Court. Earlier today, the Supreme Court denied that petition, putting the issue to bed for the time being.
The importance of this development should not be overstated. When the Supreme Court decides not to hear a case, that means only that there were not four justices interested in hearing that matter at that particular moment in time. It neither sets a new precedent nor is necessarily a window into how the justices would handle a future case that presents the same issue. Nevertheless, the Court’s decision not to hear this particular lawsuit is a hopeful sign that there is a cap on how far the five conservative justices currently want to push their crusade against campaign finance laws.
Last week, the justices announced that they would hear a similar case challenging the $123,200 cap on total contributions by wealthy individuals to candidates, political party committees and similar organizations during the current election cycle. It should be noted, however, that this case came up to the Court through an unusual process that prevents them from turning away cases they don’t want to hear. The Citizens United on steroids case, by contrast, came up through the normal process and thus would be turned away if less than four justices wanted to hear it.