Minnesota corporations looking to participate in political discourse come November may have gotten some help from the U.S. Supreme Court last week as a result of the holdin in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In that decision, the Supreme Court invalidated 2 U.S.C. § 441b, which had prohibited corporations from making “independent expenditures” that directly promote or criticize any candidates for federal office. With this ruling, the Supreme Court has altered the political landscape just in time for the upcoming 2010 election cycle, the ripple effects of which may even be felt here in Minnesota.

Currently, Minn. Stat. 211B.15, subd. 3, prohibits corporations from making “independent expenditures” to promote or defeat the candidacy of an individual for public office. When penning this statute, the Minnesota Legislature may have intended to prevent corruption, or even the appearance of corruption, in Minnesota’s political process. The Supreme Court rejected that logic, however, reasoning that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” The Court went on to explain that “the fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt.”

The ramifications of Citizens United may not be limited to the ban on independent expenditures, however. Minn. Stat. 211B.15, subd. 2, prohibits corporations from making direct contributions to candidates for political office. Although the Supreme Court did not directly address whether corporations may give direct contributions to candidates, it did emphasize that “speech restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content.” The corporate status alone, according to the Court, is not enough of a reason to bar the speaker’s participation in the political process.

What effect Citizens United will have on Minnesota’s current ban on corporate independent expenditures or contributions is still taking shape. At the very least, some of Minnesota’s longstanding campaign finance laws may be subject to change.  

Read additional commentaries about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.