The case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) has momentous importance for our democracy and has created enormous controversy extending even to the President's State of the Union Address.
On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court in an opinion by Justice Kennedy struck down a key provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of 2002 (BCRA). In doing so the Court overturned a number of previous decisions and it advanced a theory of corporate rights under the First Amendment that may utterly change the way that election campaigns are financed.
This change in our law was foreshadowed by the fact that Justice Kennedy had dissented in a number of previous cases where the Court had upheld restrictions on campaign finance laws, including restrictions on corporate spending for candidates. After Justice O'Connor retired, Justice Kennedy became the "swing justice" on this and many other issues. Justice Kennedy did not change his understanding of the demands of the First Amendment; what did change is that his opinion became the dominant one.
In this case, by a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court overruled a portion of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003) and struck down §441b of BCRA, a provision that prohibited corporations from spending corporate money on “electioneering communications” (campaign advertisements). The central holding of the Court in this case is that corporations have a constitutional right to express themselves in support of a political candidate. By another vote of 5-4 involving Justice Kennedy and a different set of justices, the Court upheld the provision of the BCRA that requires the disclosure of the identity of the persons or organizations who funded the advertisement. Citizens United only deals with the constitutionality of laws regulating the corporate funding of campaign advertisements. The Court does not address the constitutionality of laws that limit the amount of money that persons may contribute to a candidate for political office, nor does the Court address the constitutionality of laws that prohibit corporations and unions from donating any money to political candidates.