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Why Is the ACLU Helping the Richest Americans Buy Our Elections?

For decades, people inside and outside the ACLU have tried to get its board to moderate its campaign finance views, and new facts on the ground give them more ammunition.
 
 
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The American Civil Liberties Union has earned its  reputation as the nation’s foremost legal opponent of government censorship and defender of First Amendment political speech. But increasingly, this national organization with 500,000 members and a $70 million annual budget has another  legacy—helping the wealthiest Americans and institutions spend unlimited sums on elections.

This complex legacy follows a nearly four-decade history of filing briefs in the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, virtually all of them arguing that the door to censorship, via regulation of core political speech, must never be opened. But various forces in the courts, the political world, and inside the ACLU are converging that may prompt the ACLU’s national board to reexamine its hardened stance in a more nuanced light, just as it moderated its policy on public financing of elections soon after the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United  ruling.

The pressure went up considerably on Friday, as two U.S. Supreme Court Justices said the Court should reopen Citizens United , as they suspended a Montana Supreme Court ruling that upheld the state's century-old ban on corporate electioneering. Unlike the ACLU’s national office, which urged the Court to remove restrictions on independent—or non-candidate related—electioneering, the Montana ACLU argued this wasn’t about censorship at all, but preventing corruption and ensuring Montanans’ voices could be heard in elections.

“Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n , make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,’” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with Justice Stephen Breyer joining. A hearing “will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidate’s allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.”

Two phrases in the justices’ statement may have particular resonance for the ACLU’s national board—the “experience elsewhere” and “corruption or the appearance of corruption,” which suggest constitutional issues apart from censorship. In Citizens United, the ACLU had argued that independent expenditures were the kind of “speech that lies at the heart of the First Amendment” and must not be censored.

According to  Burt Neuborne , the ACLU’s former national legal director and now legal director at the  Brennan Center for Justice , only one perspective matters to an organization that has weathered criticism for decades for defending unpopular people and causes: whether new facts from current events and recent changes in law demand a reevaluation of their position. As the two justices suggest, the 2012 presidential campaign, in combination with the Court majority's recent aggressive deregulation of campaign financing, may be that spark.

The presidential campaign has seen what’s left of the nation’s campaign finance laws flouted in a striking way that cannot have gone unnoticed within the ACLU; it has revealed that critical rulings in  Citizens United  (and the D.C. Circuit Court in a ruling that followed,  SpeechNow.org) were at best politically naïve constructions. This is because 2012’s electoral landscape is presenting free speech issues that are not about state censorship—but what American democracy should look like and how big money functions in it.

The ACLU was not responsible for the Supreme Court’s decision to expand Citizens United  from a narrow case to one remaking big portions of campaign finance law. But like many times before, it urged deregulation of electioneering—which the Court’s majority did for independent expenditures. Just weeks later, an appeals court in  SpeechNow.org drew on this ruling, allowing individuals and corporations to make unlimited contributions to political committees, so long as those groups only make independent expenditures and do not coordinate with candidates. That is how today’s super PACs emerged.

In Citizens United , the Supreme Court made a series of remarkable assertions. It declared that independent expenditures could not corrupt candidates, as they would be truly independent and operate apart from the candidates. But neither the Supreme Court nor the Speechnow.org court said how to avoid coordination, assuming the problem away. Everyone on the Court but Justice Clarence Thomas held that disclosure of spending was permissible, not recognizing that current disclosure rules  allow donors to operate in the dark behind innocuous stage names. Like coordination, corruption was also dumbed down. Invoking the long-established doctrine that the only legitimate reason for regulating campaign funds is curbing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of it, the majority watered this concept down saying a lot about what corruption was not, namely access, influence and ingratiation of candidates, but next to nothing about what quid pro quo corruption was, apart from buying votes. Against this backdrop, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, made the startling assertion that limitless independent expenditures in elections could not possibly cause the public to lose faith in our democracy.

Needless to say, his prediction has not been borne out by events. Recent nationwide polling has found 55 percent of Americans oppose the decision, and bigger numbers believe that their voices are diminished compared to big donors and lobbyists. It is not hard to see why the public is upset and discouraged. Presidential candidates’ former campaign staffers are managing the supposedly independent committees,  mocking that supposed independence. By uniformly taking the low road, they complement the official campaign’s positive messaging showing further coordination. The top donors use the fiction of independence to ignore  federal contribution limits  and write million-dollar checks, including to political non-profits that do not disclose their names. To suggest that an individual or corporation writing six- or seven-figure checks to back candidates or parties does not expect payback is naïve, former  political consultants say. Meanwhile, a voluminous record discussing independent expenditures, coordination and corruption was before the Court during its deliberations. Citing this record, Justice John Paul Stevens in his Citizens United dissent wondered how the majority could be so indifferent.

“On numerous occasions we have recognized Congress’ legitimate interest in preventing the money that is being spent from exerting an ‘undue influence on an officeholder’s judgment’ and from creating ‘the appearance of such influence,’” he wrote. “Corruption operates along a spectrum, and the majority’s apparent belief that  quid pro quo  arrangements can be neatly demarcated from other improper influences does not accord with the theory or reality of politics.” 

These developments raise specific First Amendment issues that are not about state censorship of political speech, but about corruption and distortions of the democratic process. These issues have been noted not only on  editorial pages  and parodied on  late-night TV , but from within the ACLU itself. The Montana ACLU affiliate weighed in before the recent Montana Supreme Court decision, taking the opposite view of the national ACLU office. And New Mexico’s ACLU chapter did not interfere this month as that state’s legislature passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Moreover, in recent weeks, a respected Second Circuit judge took issue with Citizens United in a concurring opinion in a case involving New York City's public financing system.