In March of 2015, two family-owned companies headquartered in Massachusetts filed suit in state court challenging certain provisions of Massachusetts’ campaign finance laws. The provisions in question prohibit corporations and corporate PACs from contributing to candidates or political party committees, but permit labor unions and their PACs to directly contribute up to $15,000 per calendar year to candidates or parties. According to the plaintiffs’ complaint (filed as 1A Auto, Inc. v. Sullivan), this law represents a “lopsided ban” that stifles First Amendment-protected speech and associational rights for corporations. Additionally, the plaintiffs allege that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by granting unions and their PACs a privilege that is forbidden to their corporate counterparts.
Although the United States Supreme Court previously held in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce that a state’s ban on independent expenditures by corporations—but not unions—did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, the “anti-distortion” rationale behind this distinction—that is, the presumption that corporate “war chests” pose a bigger threat than union spending—was expressly overruled in 2010 in Citizens United v. FEC. On the contributions side, although the Court upheld a ban on direct corporate contributions in 2003’s FEC v. Beaumont, that ban applied equally to unions and corporations, and the government failed to distinguish between the two.