Conservatives are winning the battle for America’s courts, a triumph decades in the making. At the center of the movement is Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, who has helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for nonprofit groups that work behind the scenes to promote conservative judges and causes. Now a private judicial adviser to President Trump, Leo has extraordinary influence over who sits on the country’s highest courts. “We’re going to have great judges, conservative, all picked by the Federalist Society,” Trump told Breitbart News in June 2016. Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were chosen by Trump from a list provided by Leo. They took their place on the Supreme Court alongside justices Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito, all current or former members of the Federalist Society. Most of President Trump’s circuit court nominees (who will handle thousands of cases each year) are also connected to the group. How did Leo’s network become so vast and his influence so far-reaching? This Washington Post documentary follows the story of the ideologues, activists and undisclosed donors who made it happen. Read more: https://wapo.st/2JVIkV4. Subscribe to The Washington Post on YouTube: https://wapo.st/2QOdcqK
In her fourth book Mayer draws on court records, extensive interviews, and many private archives to examine the growing political influence of extreme libertarians among the one percent, such as the Koch brothers, tracing their ideas about taxation and government regulation and their savvy use of lobbyists to further an agenda that advances their own interests at the expense of meaningful economic, environmental, and labor reform.
Repealing the controversial decision is a pipe dream. And there are more promising avenues for campaign-finance reform.
From the moment the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC came down, it scandalized liberals. The decision heralded the “hostile corporate takeover of our democratic process,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) thundered at the time.
In 2017, a commissioner of the Federal Election Commission resigned, claiming “since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, our political campaigns have been awash in unlimited, often dark money.”* This was the animating sentiment of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for president; he even went so far as to claim that billionaires are simply “buying elections.”
This idea has given rise to a new liberal battle cry: Repeal Citizens United! Unfortunately, that tactic is naive and misguided, and relies on a misunderstanding of the law and politics surrounding the case. As we approach the 2018 congressional elections — and beyond that, the crucial presidential election of 2020 — it is more vital than ever to have a clear view of where this ruling fits into the mosaic of campaign finance law.
Such understanding will, in turn, shine light on what can be done to make the election process fairer and make politicians more responsive to all their constituents, not just the big spenders.
Some cities and states are already experimenting with programs that strengthen the voices of ordinary voters. Building on such efforts is likely to have far greater effects than continuing to demonize Citizens, whose logic is defensible on First Amendment grounds.
Most widespread in liberal circles is the idea that Citizens opened the floodgates to massive amounts of corporate spending in politics. But as many legal scholars have argued, the floodgates were already open. Citizens is not responsible for the massive amounts of money showered on favored candidates. Nor is it responsible for the rise of so-called dark money in politics.
Citizens didn’t upend our campaign finance system. It was a logical next step, given past court decisions.
Let’s put the hated decision into context. The inundation of elections with private cash is not the result of Citizens but rather was facilitated by the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo. That case established the legal framework sanctioning billions of dollars of independent private campaign spending. In it, the Court ruled that limits on campaign donations — direct donations to candidates — are constitutional but said it was unconstitutional to limit non-donation expenditures, such as independently funded advertisements.
Such independent spending — which cannot be coordinated with candidates, according to the Court — was protected under the First Amendment as not just speech but political speech. The idea is that money is a necessary instrument for supporting a political candidate, whether it’s paying for yard signs or taking out an ad in the newspaper.
Not unreasonably, the Court ruled that limitations on independent expenditures would constitute limitations on one’s ability to support a candidate through any number of media. Placing a dollar limit on such expenditures would arbitrarily prevent certain kinds of campaign support simply by the fact of how expensive they are.
Our inability to trace campaign donations to their source — the dark money issue — is the result of the lack of federal regulations to make disclosure mandatory. And such regulations are legal; the Court said as much in Citizens, with eight of nine justices agreeing on that point! The only thing standing in the way of transparency is congressional stonewalling. In 2010, Republican senators defeated a disclosure law 59 to 39, which would have made it more difficult for donors to use legal loopholes to hide their identities.
Citizens simply has not had the seismic legal impact that many think. Since Buckley protected money as speech, the only question was whether corporations were legitimate speakers. It may surprise some to hear, but the Court had already answered this question in 1978. In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the Supreme Court recognized a corporate right to free speech, concluding that the value of speech in the course of political debate does not depend on the identity of the speaker. Citizens simply followed the precedent of these two cases.
So when liberals intone that “corporations aren’t people,” thinking they are making a knock-down argument against Citizens, they miss the point. Citizens did not make corporations persons. And corporations do not need to be persons to receive First Amendment protections. Citizens upheld the liberty, provided by Bellotti, of corporations to speak, and they speak under the rules provided by Buckley.
The details were debated by expert lawyer Floyd Abrams and First Amendment scholar Burt Neuborne not long after Citizens came down. Abrams noted that even the liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, recognized that the Court has “long since held that Corporations are covered by the First Amendment.”
Neuborne, in response, argued that corporations lack dignity and a conscience, which he thinks underpin the human right to free speech. But Justice Kennedy, writing for the slim five-justice majority, cited the long history of First Amendment protections for corporations. The Court had sided heavily with the Abrams view.
The Court seems inclined to limit the definition of “corruption” to explicit bribery
The only remaining question was whether there could be a justification for the government’s curtailing of that speech. Abridging political speech falls under the strictest category of judicial scrutiny; any law that does so must be justified by a “compelling state interest.”
One such objective, some suppose, is stopping corruption, a clear threat to the integrity of Congress. And indeed, in Randall v. Sorrell (2006), the Court reaffirmed that combating “corruption” rises to the level of a compelling state interest. But in Citizens, Justice Kennedy said the only kind of corruption that would count in this context is the most direct kind: “quid pro quo” corruption, which covers only vote-buying bribery.
No such vote buying was at issue in Citizens, since the controversy centered on the release of a privately funded campaign video during an advertising “blackout” period. Such off-limits periods, established by the McCain-Feingold legislation, paid insufficient heed to the Court’s precedents on money as speech and the high bar for restricting political speech.
In response to Kennedy’s narrow conception of corruption, Harvard Law professor and onetime presidential contender Lawrence Lessig has advocated for a broader idea of corruption. In his book Republic, Lost, Lessig spells out his notion of “dependence corruption,” whereby Congress is unduly responsive to big donors because they are dependent on them for campaign money.
He takes pains to argue on “originalist” grounds, hoping to appeal to the conservative majority of the Court, who attempt to cleave closely to the meaning of words as they are found in documents at the time of the Constitution’s drafting. Alas, his arguments have largely fallen on deaf judicial ears.
Where does that leave us?
We are almost certainly stuck with Citizens, not to mention Buckley and Bellotti. The major hope of many concerned lawyers and academics in the runup to the 2016 election has been dashed: the hope of filling the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat with a more liberal justice who might help reverse the decision. Instead, reformers got Neil Gorsuch.
So even if there were a stronger legal argument to be made against Citizens, that argument won’t attract enough votes in the Supreme Court. Desperation has led some, like Sanders, to push for a constitutional amendment limiting corporate campaign spending. But beyond being a pipe dream, given the institutional challenges, this tactic fails to take seriously the intricate First Amendment questions at issue.
The upshot of the Sanders campaign is its demonstration of the strength of a candidacy funded by small donations. As a candidate, Sanders rejected Super PAC funding in favor of donations averaging well under $100. Since Super PACs are the primary means individuals and corporations funnel their money to campaigns, it is historically noteworthy that a candidate without such support was capable of seriously contending for the presidency.
The lessons to draw from Sanders’s campaign is not that the system is healthy. Instead, we should conclude that the medicine to cure it may take the form of enabling citizens to make more Bernie-size donations. As of late, there has been an uptick in under-$200 donations to congressional races. In order to make such donations a staple in our democratic process, they should be supported by legislation.
Such a program has been introduced in Seattle, which gives away “democracy vouchers,”which could serve as a national model.
The basic idea is simple: Every eligible voter in Seattle receives $100 in vouchers, which they can freely donate to campaigns in the local city elections. This means every voter can participate in the pre-election process by using their money to “speak up” for candidates they endorse, and it enables lesser-known candidates to find financial support without bending the knee before big money special interests.
Theoretically, this ensures that every citizen has a baseline level of equal participation in the political process. It expands our understanding of political equality beyond “one person, one vote” to a wider notion of equal opportunity for electoral participation.
The local focus is a crucial first step to reshaping public participation in campaigns. As ACLU national legal director David Cole has argued, the most likely path to substantial federal campaign finance reform is by winning small victories in cities and states. Fostering state- and local-level initiatives accomplishes several things.
First, it draws more citizens into the debate over the proper role of money in politics — an essential step toward a sustained national conversation.
Second, it allows for political and legal experimentation. Because the Supreme Court is unpredictable, especially given the uncertainty of Justice Kennedy’s swing vote, attempting several strategies at once for public funding increases the chances that a constitutionally passable version is found.
More experiments also mean more models that can be used as contrasts to the federal system, making the weaknesses of the federal system all the more clear.
Third, such an approach will spark important legal work, which is far from a purely academic matter. By pursuing ballot initiatives and enacting local laws that address money in politics, we will invite legal challenges by entrenched, moneyed interests. This forces judges to issue ever more opinions on what is constitutional, justifying themselves along the way.
Higher courts will receive appeals and further scrutinize this reasoning. This, in turn, will attract legal academics like moths to a flame, whose work will be cited by advocates and courts.
All of this will arm the public with constitutional arguments to defend the integrity of our democracy.
There is no guarantee that all of this will be enough to counterbalance the power of big money in elections. But we can hope that bottom-up political activism will light a fire underneath the complacent rump of Congress. Increased national dialogue, successful local and state initiatives, and a proliferation of academic criticism of current law and policy all generate real political pressure.
Signs of hope
Disclosure laws are not out of reach in the coming years, and increased participation in local elections, subsidized by voucher systems, may usher in increased voter turnout for national elections. Higher turnout has been shown to heavily favor one of the two major political parties. Hint: It’s not the Republicans.
Liberals should take note of the recent special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Outside donations for the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, were more than five times larger than for the Democrat, Conor Lamb. Yet Lamb pulled off the upset, showing money isn’t everything. He drew strength from a well-mobilized, engaged electorate.
Such vigor can be stimulated in elections across the country — particularly if we provide concrete, monetary means for voters to participate in the selection of their representatives.
Rather than continuing to rail against Citizens United, reformers should pursue strategies that increase democratic participation and encourage voter turnout.
Though Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in every single election since 1992, except one, Republicans have managed to secure a far-right majority on the US Supreme Court. As a result, the Court’s claim to be a neutral, non-partisan arbiter for pressing constitutional questions is quickly losing credibility.
.. the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the Supreme Court marks the culmination of a decades-long campaign by the right-wing Federalist Society to reshape the judiciary. For those devout conservatives and their monied backers, faced with the prospect of massive demographic and generational shifts in the country’s body politic, the strategy has long been to find a way to limit severely access to authentic democratic governance in the United States for generations to come. They now seem on the verge of achieving their goal.
.. since 1988, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote in presidential elections – the only consistent measure of national voter intent – just once, when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 after a period of national unification following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In every other presidential election (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016), the Democratic candidate won more votes than the Republican candidate.
.. considerable evidence has accumulated that Thomas acceded to that seat by committing perjury during his Senate confirmation hearings.
.. Nine years later, Thomas would go on to join the 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore, in which the Court ruled that Florida’s 2000 election recount must stop. In doing so, he helped hand the presidency to the son of the man who had appointed him, and denied it to Al Gore, who had won the national popular ballot by more than 500,000 votes.
.. So obtuse was the majority’s written opinion in that case that the ruling actually came with a remarkable disclaimer that it should never be cited as precedent in the future.
.. In 2005, he appointed the current chief justice, John Roberts, to replace William Rehnquist; and in 2006 he appointed Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O’Connor.
.. Obama bent over backwards to assuage them, nominating Merrick Garland, the moderate Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
.. Mitch McConnell, succeeded in stymieing the president’s constitutional authority to appoint Supreme Court justices with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
It bears mentioning that, at this time, the 54 Republicans in the Senate had collectively received 20 million fewer votes than their 46 Democratic colleagues. The Republicans owed their majority strictly to the Senate’s anti-democratic composition, whereby each state is represented by two senators
.. This scheme was one of many concessions made to slave states during the drafting of the Constitution, and with the rise of urbanization, it has come to have an increasingly distortionary effect on American politics. For example, Wyoming’s two senators represent 563,767 people (according to the 2010 census), whereas California’s senators represent 37,254,518.
.. Moreover, Clinton achieved her high popular-vote margin despite widespread voter-disenfranchisement campaigns aimed at Democratic-leaning voters in states controlled by Republicans.
.. In Florida, where elections are regularly notoriously close, more than 1.5 million citizens (over 10% of the state’s total number of adults, and one in five African-Americans) are denied the vote owing to nonviolent criminal convictions, even after they have served their time in prison.
.. Despite having no democratic mandate to speak of, Trump and the Senate Republicans wasted no time in confirming Neil Gorsuch to Garland’s rightful seat on theCourt.
.. Kavanaugh was selected by a president who has been implicated in a felony allegedly committed in pursuit of the office he now holds. That alone calls into question Trump’s legitimacy. But he is also the subject of an unprecedented investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with a hostile foreign power – an investigation that has already resulted in more than 20 guilty pleas or felony convictions.
.. Kavanaugh, a member of the legal team that persuaded the Supreme Court to hand Bush the presidency in 2000 (thereby hastening the whole grim cavalcade of misbegotten) was most likely selected for his conspicuous support of executive authority in the past. His interpretation of the president’s powers seems to brook no limits, and would likely open the door for Trump to ignore a grand-jury subpoena and even shut down the investigation of his campaign.
.. With his party still enjoying a two-vote (minority-elected) majority in the Senate, McConnell has shown no compunction about ramming Kavanaugh’s dubious nomination through that body. That leaves no alternative but to consider the dire implications of a Supreme Court dominated by the Misbegotten Majority: Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh. What will this judicial coup mean for reproductive, criminal, labor, and civil rights?
.. More to the point, one of the main threats posed by the new Court is what it will do to voting rights and the laws governing elections – that is, the democratic process itself. Decisions that bear on the outcomes of elections could very well upend the functioning of the other two branches of government, thereby blocking all other possible avenues of redress available within theConstitution’s wider system of checks and balances.
.. Of course, this has been the Republicans’ idea all along. For decades, the Federalist Society, which has overseen all of Trump’s judicial nominations, has understood that cultural and demographic trends are poised to strip the power of its wealthy, predominantly white male sponsors. That cohort is in the process of dying out, and the majority of future voters – and, indeed, current voters, judging by recent popular-vote counts – will be younger, more diverse, more tolerant, and considerably further to the left on economic matters.
To forestall this outcome of democracy, conservatives’ first instinct was to limit the franchise itself. The broad demographic and generational changes underway could be nullified by denying key constituencies the right to vote. And when that wasn’t possible, the next best option was to tamper with electoral outcomes by means of untraceable “dark money” and gerrymandering. The result is that Austin, Texas, one of the most liberal cities in America, is represented in the House of Representatives by four Republicans and just one Democrat; and North Carolina, a state that is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, is represented by ten Republicans and just three Democrats.
.. He was also on board for the decimation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which for a half-century had prevented blatant racial discrimination in districts with documented histories of disenfranchising African-Americans and members of other minority groups. And he routinely passed the buck on gerrymandering cases.
.. Citing so-called states’ rights, the Court might start by overturning a recent 3-0 federal circuit court decision ordering North Carolina to redraw its egregiously gerrymandered congressional districts. With that precedent in place, other states will be able to step up their own voter-suppression efforts across the board.
.. For example, some states might decide to deny college students the right to cast absentee ballots, or to vote in jurisdictions where they have not established a permanent residency (or both). Others may think to impose property requirements for voter eligibility, or to “save costs” by shutting down polling stations in, say, Latino neighborhoods.
Still others might require non-drivers to show another form of state-issued identification, which can be acquired only at some remotely located administrative office.
.. retaking the House in 2018 won’t do the Democrats much good as far as the Court is concerned. All of the constitutional checks on the judiciary rest with the Senate.
.. when it comes to voting rights, gerrymandering, and other election-related cases, he has been one of the justices leading the charge from the right.
.. Whereas Democratic presidents have based their appointments to the Court on merit, Republicans have made a point of selecting younger jurists who will remain on the bench for decades.
.. All of this will be justified on the grounds of “originalism” – the FederalistSociety/Scalia doctrine of sticking to the strict letter of the Constitution as intended (according to them) by its authors at the time of its promulgation. Never mind that in 1787, only propertied men took part in the Constitutional Convention, and that a sizeable plurality were slaveholders zealously guarding their right to treat people like chattel.1
.. if individual states try to enact progressive policies on their own, they should be prepared for the Misbegotten Majority suddenly to suspend its much-vaunted devotion to “states’ rights” and strike those down, too. After all, that is the job their sponsors put them there todo. They will not soon forget that they are part of a decades-long project of minority rule.
.. After 2020, more avenues for the proper functioning of checks and balances could open up, especially if the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. Frustrated by their democratically legitimate legislation being scuttled by a misbegotten Court, they could see fit to draft articles of impeachment against Thomas.
.. The journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson have marshaled clear evidence that Thomas lied under oath throughout his confirmation hearing on matters pertaining to his past behavior toward female co-workers and subordinates. And Kavanaugh himself may be facing similar jeopardy with regard to possible perjury in his own confirmation processes.
.. Alternatively, Democrats could pick up where former President Franklin D. Roosevelt left off, by trying to expand the size of the Court, which can be achieved through legislation. But, given the squishiness of swing-state Democrats, a court-packing gambit could fail, as it did with Roosevelt; or, even worse, it could backfire by setting a dangerous precedent for Republicans to follow when they return to power.
.. America would hardly be the first democracy in history to succumb to plutocratic autocracy verging on fascism.