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John Edwards verdict could become part of Citizens United backlash

A diverse panel of North Carolinians is currently considering whether John Edwards committed campaign fraud in 2008, but the verdict could also reverberate nationally if it is at odds with the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United ruling.

By Staff writer / May 23, 2012

John Edwards leaves a federal courthouse with daughter Cate Edwards after the jury deliberated for a third day in his trial on charges of campaign corruption in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday.

Chuck Burton/AP

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If 12 North Carolina jurors decide that former vice presidential nominee John Edwards is guilty of campaign fraud, it could be widely seen as part of a growing rumble of populist discontent with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which made it easier for interest groups to raise money to influence campaigns.

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It’s an open question whether the charges against Mr. Edwards – six felony counts including conspiracy and receiving illegal donations – would even be brought in the post-Citizens United world. Some experts say the nearly $1 million paid by donors to hide Edwards’s pregnant mistress from the press and his wife could today be moved in legal ways under the new rules, which simply require that there is no direct coordination between candidate and interest groups called "super PACs."

But while Citizens United is not part of the Edwards case – the Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision came after the events at issue took place – the trial has dealt with those issues of influence and coordination that are central to Citizens United. As a result, the verdict could help shape the mounting debate about how unchecked money can corrupt the political process, and whether the Supreme Court should revisit – and perhaps tone down – its ruling. 

“Linking the Edwards case directly to Citizens United I think is stretching it, but I do think this case will become part of this growing tapestry of campaigns and money where you see that [Americans] do want to set limits for politicians, and they do want to take away the curtain – they don’t want 'The Wizard of Oz' any longer,” says Steven Friedland, a former federal prosecutor who’s attended parts of the trial in Greensboro, N.C.

In some ways, the issue at the core of the Edwards trial is just as relevant today as it was before Citizens United: Did Edwards coordinate the donations to save his ultimately failed bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, or did the donors, Listerine heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and the late Texas lawyer Fred Barron, simply making a gift at the request of others to help Edwards?

The jury can acknowledge multiple motivations behind the donations and still find Edwards guilty, Judge Catherine Eagles said in her instructions. That fact, along with the jury requesting office supplies like pens and poster board on Tuesday with which to parse the evidence, suggests that “they’re picking their own way up the mountain,” says Mr. Friedland, currently a law professor at Elon University in North Carolina.

Activists and lawmakers driving a backlash against Citizens United could seize upon a guilty verdict to add to their momentum. 

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