No, Gorsuch didn't "misstate" Citizen United's holding

With all due respect to Rick Hasen, I don't think Judge Neil Gorsuch "misstated" the holding of Citizens United v. FEC. Here are a couple of statements that arose during questioning:

Q: In Citizens United Justice Kennedy indicated the restrictions on campaign donations can only be justified by concerns about quid pro quo corruption. Now President Trump has said that the reason he made campaign donations was so that when he needs something from them they're there for me. His campaign contribution favors. Shouldn't Congress not the courts make the determination about the potential for corruption? Especially if we're talking about quid pro quos.
A: Senator, I think there is lots of room for legislation in this area that the Court has left. The Court indicate that if proof of corruption can be demonstrated that a different result may obtain [sic] on expenditure limits.
. . .
I think Citizens United made clear the quid pro quo corruption remains a vital concern and is subject for potential legislation and I think there is ample room for this body to legislate even in light of Citizens United. Whether it has to do with contribution limits, whether it has to do with expenditures limits, or whether it has to do with disclosure.

One basic problem is that Senator Patrick Leahy's question is almost incomprehensible. Recall that Citizens United was not about "campaign donations," (i.e., contributions to political campaigns), or even about contributions at all, but about independent expenditures. The quotations from Trump are a non sequitur.

So Judge Gorsuch attempts to return the discussion, and here it's apparent it's about campaign finance quite broadly Is there "lots of room for legislation," including that some "expenditure limits" may be upheld if there is "proof of corruption"?

I would argue yes on at least three fronts.

The first is expenditure limits (speaking about expenditure limits generally) have been upheld by courts, notably in Bluman v. FEC, which affirmed a ban on political expenditures by foreign nationals. (This is the reason why Justice Samuel Alito mouthed "not true" at the State of Union when President Barack Obama stated that Citizens United would "open the floodgates" for "foreign corporations to spend without limit in our elections.") As Mr. Leahy's question was broadly construed, Judge Gorsuch's answer is, I think, appropriately broadly construed.

Second, even narrower, I think it's still the case after Citizens United that some such expenditures could be restricted. For instance, if Congress demonstrates that the expenditures aren't truly "independent" but coordinated, they can squarely be regulated (consistently with Buckley v. Valeo). That is, there's still room to demonstrate that some expenditures aren't truly "independent."

Third, and still narrower, I think there's still room after Citizens United, with the appropriate record, to regulate truly independent expenditures. According to the majority in Citizens United:

The McConnell record was "over 100,000 pages" long, yet it "does not have any direct examples of votes being exchanged for . . . expenditures." This confirms Buckley's reasoning that independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate.

So now begins a construction of what this Court's holding means. Here there's language suggesting a lack of evidence demonstrating corruption justifying regulation. Does it mean that Congress is forever prohibited in this area? Professor Hasen argues yes, citing American Traditional Partnership v. Bullock, that the Court "would NOT consider evidence of corruption to justify a spending limit."

But that's not what Bullock holds--at least, in my reading of the case. Bullock states, "Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case." Which expressly leaves open the possibility of meaningful distinguishing of the case! So the possibility remains open for regulation even after Citizens United.

There are three extremely important caveats to my line of reasoning.

The first is the unrealistic possibility that Congress would even legislate to regulate independent expenditures in the near future. But, of course, Judge Gorsuch is speaking to the possibility of legislation concerning expenditures.

The second is the unrealistic likelihood that the Court would ever view any record as "meaningful[ly] distinguishing" Citizens United, or offering sufficient evidence to suggest that quid pro quo corruption does exist concerning independent expenditures. But that unrealistic possibility of the acceptance of the Court is not expressly foreclosed by Citizens United's language--that is, Citizens United does not hold, as a matter of First Amendment doctrine, that independent expenditures can never be regulated. While some kinds of expenditures may well be regulated post-Citizens United, I imagine there's a matter of dispute about what kind of record would suffice for particular types of expenditures.

The third is that I probably am inclined to agree with a truncated, alternative take Professor Hasen offers, which is that Judge Gorsuch is "trying to soften [the] harshness" of Citizens United with his phrasing. And part of this is whether the real question posed is Citizens United in particular--independent expenditures from domestic corporations--or campaign finance quite generally. I think, to return to the beginning, the confusion of Mr. Leahy's question and the breadth of Judge Gorsuch's answer suggest that, charitably read, this answer is wholly appropriate. For those who are very specifically interested in the narrow issue of Citizens United, Judge Gorsuch's answer is a rather generous interpretation of the ability of Congress to regulate in this area, but, I think, still accurate. And for those who are interested in the more general campaign finance universe as Mr. Leahy's question suggests, it's wholly accurate and entirely defensible.