The U.S. Supreme Court released its landmark opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on Jan. 21, 2010.
Shortly before the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit group, wanted to run ads and air a film critical of then-candidate and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton but was barred from doing so by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which is enforced by the FEC. After the group unsuccessfully sought relief against the commission in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court ruled that the government violated the First Amendment by limiting the independent expenditures of corporations, unions or PACs that were not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign. However, the court noted that states could still ban direct corporate contributions to candidates.
At the time, it was unclear what impact the ruling might have on the future of campaigns. But 13 years later, it’s become more apparent how dramatically elections and policy have changed.
Effects on States
As with all Supreme Court decisions, states faced questions about the enforceability of their existing laws. In the six years following Citizens United, 14 states that banned corporate and union contributions had their laws repealed or stuck down by the courts.
With so many laws no longer enforceable, states turned to other tools in the campaign finance toolbox—notably disclosure requirements, which are intended to create transparency on the source of corporate political spending. (Learn more about state disclosure requirements on NCSL’s State Campaign Finance Disclosure Requirements page.) States have also introduced bills and resolutions, such as those in Colorado and Maine, calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn Citizens United.
Effects on Other Cases
Citizens United also set a course for future Supreme Court decisions. For example, in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, also from 2010, the court allowed the creation of super PACs, giving corporations the ability to make unlimited independent expenditures. While disclosure requirements apply to super PACs, they are less stringent than those for candidate campaigns. This led to a large influx of so-called dark money—funds from sources not disclosed to the public—into political campaigns. Over the last election cycle, 2,475 super PACs reported over $1.3 billion in independent expenditures, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign finance and lobbying data.
In 2021, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argued that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s limitations on how much money candidates could use to repay loans to their own campaigns violated the First Amendment. The court agreed, in Ted Cruz for Senate, et al. v. FEC, citing the precedent set in Citizens United and stating that the repayment cap did not create a threat or appearance of quid pro quo corruption due to other existing federal laws around individual contribution limits and disclosure. With the repayment cap no longer enforceable, candidates may use an unlimited amount of personal funds to repay campaign loans.
The outsize impact of Citizens United on elections and public policy is ongoing. In the future, expect more state efforts to restrict corporate donations and dark money, and more laws to be challenged under the ruling’s precedent.
Learn more about the Supreme Court’s most impactful campaign finance cases at Campaign Finance and the Supreme Court. For more information on campaign finance legislation since 2015, visit NCSL’s Campaign Finance Legislation Database.
Adam Kuckuk is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.