James Madison, Citizens United, and the Constitutional Problem of Corruption

40 Pages Posted: 6 May 2020

Date Written: April 24, 2020


One of the most controversial decisions in the modern history of the Supreme Court is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court struck down the ban on corporate independent expenditures. The majority defined corruption in narrow terms and held that quid pro quo corruption was the only constitutionally permissible basis for campaign finance regulation.

The decision set off a storm of outrage. President Obama even took the remarkable step of condemning the ruling during his State of the Union Address. Recent polls show that the public still overwhelmingly opposes the majority’s ruling in Citizens United.

On the tenth anniversary of Citizens United, this Article puts the constitutional problem of corruption in historical context by examining the political career of James Madison. The Citizens United case turned on the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause. Madison wrote the First Amendment while he served in Congress. He also played a key role in drafting the Constitution and in authoring the Federalist Papers, which explained and defended the Constitution during the ratification debates.

Nearly two centuries after his death, Madison looms as large as ever in American constitutional law. The Supreme Court still consults his writings and career for guidance in interpreting the Constitution. Madison’s appeal even transcends traditional divides, as justices across the ideological spectrum routinely cite him.

The story of Madison’s political career thus brings a unique and important perspective to the Citizens United ruling. The underlying issues of free speech—as well as the threat of corruption posed by powerful financial interests—were well-known to Madison. One of the most important constitutional theorists in history, he was also a career politician, serving as a four-term member of Congress and later as a two-term President of the United States. In addition, he helped Thomas Jefferson found the Democratic-Republican Party (known today as the Democratic Party), which meant that Madison spent his life not only as a public intellectual but also as a practical politician engaged in party building. Madison’s political experiences thus provide a revealing glimpse into how the First Amendment’s author approached the issue of money in politics when it came to his own election campaigns.

Keywords: Constitutional Law, Citizens United, Election Law, Campaign Finance, Legal History, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, wartime repression, James Madison, framers of the constitution, Constitutional history, political parties, campaign tactics, fundraising, political history, Thomas Jefferson

Suggested Citation

Gaughan, Anthony J., James Madison, Citizens United, and the Constitutional Problem of Corruption (April 24, 2020). 69 American University Law Review 101 (2020), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3584394

Anthony J. Gaughan (Contact Author)

Drake University - Law School ( email )

27th & Carpenter Sts.
Des Moines, IA 50311
United States
5152712060 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.drake.edu/law/facstaff/directory/anthony-gaughan/

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