Campaign finance

  • November 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    It’s not where he said it; it’s what Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito had to say about the ruling in Citizens United and the role of the federal government that warrants any kind of notice.

    Alito has long been defensive of the high court’s handiwork in a decision that gave more power to corporate interests to spend their expenditures on politicking. That 2010 high court opinion in Citizens United v. FEC overturned longstanding court precedent allowing for some regulation of campaign financing by corporations. During the 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama blasted the Court for trampling that precedent and added that it would become a boon for special interests, including foreign ones, and Alito was caught on camera uttering, “Not true.”

    Recently the severely conservative judge (he was far right as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit) again sounded a defensive note on Citizens United before the Federalist Society’s 2012 National Lawyers Convention. Alito, as reported by the Associated Press, said all kinds of newspapers and television news and opinion broadcasts, many owned by vast corporate interests, sound off on and provide endorsements of candidates.

    “The question is whether speech that goes to the very heart of government should be limited to certain preferred corporations; namely media corporations,” Alito said during a keynote address at the group’s 30th Anniversary Gala Dinner on Nov. 15. “Surely the idea that the First Amendment protects only certain privileged voices should be disturbing to anybody who believes in free speech.”

    Beyond defending the opinion, and shooting a few asides at critics of the opinion, Alito sounded what is a frequent Tea Party or rightwing talking point about ever-expanding powers of the federal government, saying that the views advanced by the administration in several cases before the high court revealed a vision of a society dominated by a towering federal government.

  • September 13, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service Law George Washington University Law School. This post is part of an ACSblog Constitution Day Symposium.


    As Constitution Day approaches, there is much that will be and should be said in praise of the document that has successfully guided the United States for more than 220 years.  But when there is some part of our governance system that is broken, it does not denigrate the Constitution to recognize that and to propose to do something about it. That is, after all, why the Framers included Article V that makes it difficult, but not impossible, to correct a flaw in the grand design.

    Over 12 years ago, I signed on to a publication of The Constitution Project entitled "Great and Extraordinary Occasions: Developing Guidelines for Constitutional Change."  The authors argued that constitutional amendments should not be used without a showing of great need for an important part of our system and the absence of any lesser means of solving a problem.  I continue to hold that view, but have now concluded that those stringent criteria have been met and that only a constitutional amendment can fix the problem of uncontrolled spending in elections for public office.  Some would disagree because they believe that elections awash with money from those with strong economic (and sometimes other) interests in the outcome are good for democracy (or for the interests that they support), and hence would oppose such an amendment on its merits.  But for those who decry the current excesses in campaign contributions and expenditures, there is little choice other than to amend the Constitution.

    Much of the discussion about this issue lays the blame solely on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. But as I have detailed elsewhere, “It’s Not Just Citizens United,” that decision is only one part of a much larger set of problems, going back to 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, when the Court held that the First Amendment precluded the Government from limiting the amount of money that individuals could spend to support candidates via independent expenditures.  In those days, that may have meant expenditures of at most tens of thousands of dollars, but in 2012 that has ballooned to tens of millions, significant portions of which go through organizations that collect money from multiple sources and whose independence is at least open to question.  Citizens United permitted for-profit corporations from doing what individuals can do on the independent expenditure side – albeit with vastly greater resources than all but a very few individuals – and many observers think that the century old ban on direct contributions by corporations is set for a similar demise.  Finally, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, the Court has put a serious crimp in the effort to create a public funding system by outlawing the effort to augment basic public funding to counter massive spending by an opponent that chooses not to be part of that system.  Additional disclosure would be good (assuming that Congress can pass it), but alone it cannot be enough to overcome these major rulings.  It is possible that the composition of the Court will change, but it is highly unlikely that all of these decisions will be overturned, which is pretty much what is needed.

  • August 31, 2012

    By Jeremy Leaming

    The effort to trump the Supreme Court’s disastrous corporate elections spending case, Citizens United v. FEC, received a presidential stamp of approval this week, but because of the media’s heightened coverage of a political convention in Florida, it went largely undetected.

    But while politicos gathered in Tampa to do what they inevitably do, provide a boring, predictable show, President Obama in a Reddit conversation said a constitutional amendment might be the only way to go about staunching or at least curbing corporate America’s increasingly disconcerting grip on elections for public office.

    A bit of hyperbole above, because some press did notice Obama’s comments made during the Reddit discussion. As Politico reported, the president said, “Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it.). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-Pac phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

    Politico noted that Citizens United greatly weakened federal regulation of corporate spending on elections, thereby allowing business interests to become even more involved in controlling political outcomes and influencing political parties.

  • August 27, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers may help push equality measures for LGBT persons, but at the end of the day if the state and federal courts are made up of rightwing jurists and those beholden to corporate interests, advancements toward equality will likely be an ongoing arduous and fitful slog.

    The health and safety of the LGBT community is “inextricably tied to the health and safety and vigor of our court systems, both federal and state,” said Justice at Stake’s Praveen Fernandes, at an Aug. 24 panel discussion at the National LGBT Bar Association’s 2012 Lavender Law gathering in Washington, D.C. Fernandes, the Director of Federal Affairs and Diversity Initiatives at Justice at Stake, noted that many people concentrate on the role federal courts occupy in legal battles, but that the “vast majority” of law is determined at the state level.

    And on the state level there is an increasing challenge to ensure that judges are independent of special interests. Thirty-nine states elect judges, and an increasing amount of money is flowing into those elections to elect judges inclined to advance corporate interests at the cost to individual rights. Several of the panelists participating in the “Defending the Courts: Why the LGBT Community Should be Particularly Concerned about the Strength and Independence of the Bench,” also noted that judges who uphold or bolster rights for the LGBT community are vulnerable to well-funded efforts to remove them from the bench.

    Judge Mary Celeste of the Denver County Court highlighted one of the more infamous efforts to punish judges who supported equality. 

    “We are talking about defending people who are supportive of LGBT issues. Now is anyone here not aware of what happened in Iowa,” Celeste said, referring to the successful effort to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were involved in a 2009 state court ruling that supported same-sex marriages. 

    The effort to oust the three Iowa Supreme Court justices was spearheaded by the American Family Association, a Christian lobbying group, and attracted $948.355 from out-of-state groups. In late 2010 former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee applauded the effort to remove the Iowa Supreme Court justices, claiming that Iowans were “sick of one branch of government thinking it is more powerful than the other two put together,” the Iowa Independent reported.

  • August 22, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Billy Corriher, Associate Director of Research, Legal Progress, Center for American Progress


    Spending on judicial elections has skyrocketed in the last 15 years, with special interest money flooding campaign coffers. Until recently, judicial elections were almost always low-key affairs that did not require large sums of campaign cash. State supreme court candidates since 2000 have received $247 million in campaign funds. A recent report from the Center for American Progress looked at some of the states which have seen the most campaign cash in judicial elections, in an effort to assess how campaign contributions could be shaping the law. The report describes how certain special interest groups wanted the law interpreted in a certain way, and then worked to elect judges that wrote those changes into law. “In courtrooms across our country, big corporations and other special interests are tilting the playing field in their favor,” the report states.

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate-funded groups that support "tort reform" began to pour money into judicial races, after they perceived some state courts as beholden to campaign donations from trial attorneys, many of whom made money suing corporations. The pro-corporate groups had a good track record early on. These groups now dominate judicial campaign expenditures in the states that have seen the most money – Alabama, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, and others.  Contributions from Alabama's Chamber of Commerce accounted for 40 percent of all campaign contributions in the most recent high court election in the state, according to data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.