Civil and Human Rights

Supreme Court undermining US Constitution

This Supreme Court is badly out of touch with the Constitution and political reality. Last week, in a 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Roberts Court dealt another blow to our Constitution’s promise of democracy, striking down aggregate contribution limits designed to prevent massive campaign contributions to candidates, parties and PACs.


Four years ago, in Citizens United v. FEC, the Roberts Court turned our Constitution’s system of democracy of, by, and for the people on its head, ruling that money is speech, corporations are part of “We the People,” and the government’s anti-corruption interest only extends to preventing bribery. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, McCutcheon doubles down on Citizens United, making that ruling even worse.


In McCutcheon, the justices struck down federal campaign contribution regulation for the first time in history, opening the floodgates and allowing Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and fat cats across the political spectrum to contribute millions of dollars to elect candidates to do their bidding. Justice Clarence Thomas would have gone even further, voting to strike down all contribution limits.


As in Citizens United, the court’s five conservative justices buried their collective heads in the sands, proclaiming that there is no risk of corruption, or threat to democracy, in a system that allows the wealthiest of Americans to cut million-dollar checks to candidates, parties and PACS. The court’s ruling, as Justice Stephen Breyer explained in a powerful dissent, “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws” and devalues “the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions.”


This Supreme Court does not understand corruption, but the framers did. Preventing corruption is at the very core of our Constitution. Our Constitution’s framers were intensely concerned that government of, for and by the people could be corrupted by improper dependence on the few.


Rather than simply prohibit bribery, the framers wrote into our Constitution safeguards to limit opportunities for corruption and ensure that the government was “dependent on the people alone.” Ours was a government, in the words of James Madison, “not for the rich more than the poor.”


These arguments were presented to the Court, but Chief Justice Roberts simply ignored them. The result is a cramped view of corruption that cannot be squared with our Constitution’s text and history.


Rather than follow the Constitution, Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion relied on a selective reading of the court’s precedents, downplaying the court’s many past decisions that upheld contribution regulations, including aggregate limits, and playing up Citizens United.


Chief Justice Roberts’ key move was to take the stingy definition of corruption developed in Citizens United and apply it to strike down the challenged contribution limits. Citizens United involved limits on campaign spending, not cash payments to candidates and parties. But in McCutcheon, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that this same understanding of corruption also applies to limits on campaign contributions. This throws open the door to a whole host of new challenges to state and federal contribution limits, including federal limits on soft money previously upheld by the justices.


This is just the latest assault on our democracy from the Roberts Court. In the past two terms, the Supreme Court has made it easier for Americans to spend and harder to vote, with our democracy suffering as a consequence.


Last June, in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion striking down a critical section of the Voting Rights Act and turning a blind eye to Congress’ explicit constitutional power to prevent racial discrimination in voting. As a consequence, we have seen a host of efforts — in Texas, North Carolina and other places — to make it harder for racial minorities and other citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote. McCutcheon continues the Roberts’ Court assault on campaign finance law, undermining a key feature of our system of democracy designed to ensure the integrity of elections.


This gets the Constitution exactly backward. The Constitution protects the right to vote in no less than six different amendments and contains a host of provisions designed to prevent corruption of the political process. During the past 225 years, Americans have repeatedly voted for amendments that ensure a democracy inclusive of all; they have never written into the Constitution the right to contribute unlimited sums of money to buy elections. That right is entirely of the Roberts Court’s invention.


Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon opened with a ringing endorsement there “is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” but no one should be fooled. In ruling after ruling, this Supreme Court is undermining our Constitution’s promise of democracy.




This piece appeared in at least the following additional outlets:


* The Port Huron (MI) Times Herald (online)


* Battle Creek (MI) Enquirer (online)


* Montgomery (AL) Advertiser (online)

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