Chief Justice John Roberts Shreds Another Campaign Finance Law - Individuals May Now Shower Gold on Pols

The U.S. Supreme Court majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts has overturned one of the few remaining barriers in American elections that seek to limit wealthy individuals from using vast amounts of their money for political power and influence.

Wednesday’s ruling, in McCutcheon v. FEC, threw out parts of a 2002 law that imposed a $123,000 limit on federal campaign contributions in a two-year congressional cycle. It came in a lawsuit brought by a Republican Alabama businessman and the GOP that was designed to challenge those so-called aggregate contribution limits.

“Candidates will solicit million-dollar checks, contributors will write them and the pay-to-play system in Washington will only become more direct,” said J. Gerald Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “The Roberts Court has exponentially increased the already-significant political influence of the very richest while further undermining the influence of the overwhelming majority of Americans who could not afford to write checks to politicians for even a fraction of the former aggregate contribution limit of more than $123,000 per election cycle.” 

While the conservative majority’s anti-regulatory ruling was expected, coming four years after its Citizens United ruling that deregulated some corporate contributions, what was striking about Wednesday’s ruling was its contemptuous tone, written by the Chief Justice, on the subject of what’s best for American democracy.

The legal basis for upholding campaign finance regulations is to prevent corruption, the Supreme Court ruled in 1976. But the Roberts Court, as was the case in Citizens United, chose to define corruption as a quid pro quo activity—like a bribe, which is already illegal—and turned a blind eye to what anybody who has worked in politics knows: that spending large sums of money on someone’s agenda or election does not come without some strings attached or expectation of future benefit.

Roberts wrote:

Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties.

This twisted legal logic was then used by Roberts to create a narrow rationale allowing the Court’s conservative majority to throw out the contribution caps.

The Government argues that the aggregate [contribution] limits further the permissible objective of preventing quid pro quo corruption. The difficulty is that once the aggregate limits kick in, they ban all contributions of any amount, even though Congress’s selection of a base limit indicates its belief that contributions beneath that amount do not create a cognizable risk of corruption. The Government must thus defend the aggregate limits by demonstrating that they prevent circumvention of the base limits, a function they do not serve in any meaningful way.

Roberts then tossed the ball back to Congress, asserting that while this part of its 2002 law was unconstitutional, Congress could try again to write better rules.

There are multiple alternatives available to Congress that would serve the Government’s interest in preventing circumvention while avoiding “unnecessary abridgment” of First Amendment rights. Such alternatives might include targeted restrictions on transfers among candidates and political committees, or tighter earmarking rules.

These lines of reasoning are a classic case of Supreme Court justices who either don’t understand how politics works—or understand it all too well—and want to shift the balance of power in Washington by undermining Congress’s ability to regulate elections and increasing the power of political parties and their biggest contributors.

The Campaign Legal Center’s Hebert, who is one of the nation’s foremost voting rights and campaign finance attorneys, said the ruling was arrogant in just this way.

“The Court today abandoned any pretense of respecting Supreme Court precedent or Congressional expertise on matters of campaign finance when it struck down longstanding federal limits on aggregate contributions to candidates, parties and PACs,” he said. “Once again, the Roberts Court exhibits its complete ignorance of political realities, or worse, chose to ignore those realities, in striking down laws written by Congress, which is intimately aware of the political corruption that will likely ensue in the wake of this decision.”

On a more practical level, other campaign finance reformers said that the ruling would unleash a torrent of big checks to both major parties, which would likely make them even more responsive than they are now to corporate and narrow monied interests.

“Our Founders feared corruption,” said Michael Waldman, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law president. “They did not want government beholden to narrow, elite interests… Following the Citizens United decision, this will further inundate a political system already flush with cash, marginalize average voters, and elevate those who can afford to buy political access.”

“This is truly a decision establishing plutocrat rights,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “In practical terms, the decision means that one individual can write a single check for $5.9 million to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees… That is not democracy. That is plutocracy.”

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