On Wednesday, five Justices on the Supreme Court stood up for the right of multi-millionaires to buy political candidates, in the supposed name of the Constitution. It is a terrible blow to our nation.
The current Supreme Court, in a series of 5-4 votes, has thrown out just about every single law, state or federal, intended to limit the corrupting influence of huge money in elections. Wednesday's case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, went further than any before. Mr. McCutcheon is a super-rich person who wanted to be free to give money directly to unlimited numbers of candidates. The Supreme Court has already struck down most campaign finance laws, so Mr. McCutcheon was free to give unlimited amounts to Super PAC's, and issue campaigns, but to get the best "return" on their "investment" the people with real money like to put their money directly into the hands of grateful candidates who will know whom they need to be grateful to. The law the Supreme Court struck down on Wednesday was one of the last remaining limits on giving buckets of money directly to candidates.
These limits were upheld by earlier Supreme Court cases, on the obvious ground of preventing "quid pro quo corruption" (meaning political payoffs), but in three cases in the past three years (including the Citizens United case) the Supreme Court has said corruption doesn't really exist and doesn't really matter.
If you don't believe the Justices really said that, read the new decision. On page 20, Chief Justice Roberts says that as long as the millions you spend on elections are only to gain influence over an office holder rather than getting a specific favor for your specific dollars, that's not corruption. And if it looks like corruption to everyone watching, that doesn't count either. Is he kidding?
Earlier cases said spending money in campaigns was entitled to some constitutional protection but was not unlimited. The current Supreme Court has treated the right to spend money on elections as the most unlimited right in the entire Constitution. What is especially ironic is that there is virtually no constituency for this view. Every other claimed right has constituencies, pro and con - abortion, gun rights, affirmative action, etc. The claimed right to spend unlimited money in elections is different. Do you know any ordinary citizen who's for pouring more money into elections? No, the only "constituency" for spending more money to buy elections is a handful of multi-millionaires and the people who make their living off campaign spending.
Oh, sorry, I forgot one important "constituency," the Supreme Court. The money that you and I think of as pollution, the Supreme Court treats as a sacrament. Is this a Constitution that any of our citizens wanted or asked for, or one that befits a great nation? Or is it a straitjacket, forcing us to give place of honor to dirty money and dirty elections?
Do politicians like this merry-go-round any better? Do they like spending every day in office panhandling for money? Do they like going hat in hand to kiss the ring of a Las Vegas gambling czar and beg for his money? Actually, the recent candidate pilgrimage to Las Vegas is just life imitating the movies, specifically, the politician bowing to the mob in "Godfather II." (Except that in the movie the Godfather was Michael Corleone instead of Sheldon Adelson and there was no Supreme Court to bless the spectacle.)
When the Supreme Court gets too far out on its own and invents its own Constitution, we pay a heavy price. The Dred Scott case helped bring on the Civil War. The Supreme Court's crackpot ideas in the 1930s deepened the agony of the Great Depression. In some ways the current Supreme Court crusade may be worse than the others because it cripples the mechanism of the way we govern ourselves, so how will we correct the mechanism?
We take rightful pride in our Democracy and our Republican form of government, and we encourage emerging nations to follow our principles. What shall we say to them when they look at our dirty-money elections and laugh at us?
We have been passing Corrupt Practices Acts for a century, to fight corruption. Now the Supreme Court gives corruption a green light, and says the Constitution we adopted leaves us powerless to do anything about it.
Shame, shame on you, Supreme Court.
Armand Derfner, a civil rights attorney, is a faculty member at the Charleston School of Law.
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