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Roberts' Court Sinks Campaign Reform

By Michael Winship
June 11, 2010

Editor’s Note: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts testified during his confirmation hearing that he had “no agenda” and viewed his powerful post like the job of a baseball umpire. “It's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat,” he said.

However, Roberts and his court seem to have at least one clear agenda, to enhance the power of money in American politics, and the majority has been eager to get into the game to advance that cause, as Michael Winship notes in this guest essay:

At a dinner party, an ever-so-proper aristocrat who had been at the British evacuation of Dunkirk 60 years ago, remained tightlipped despite intense questioning from the other guests about what he had seen there. Finally, he shuddered at the memory and exclaimed, "The noise, my dear, and the people!"

An apocryphal story, perhaps, but the high-falutin' Supreme Court of the United States has the same attitude toward America - this would be such a great country if it wasn't for all the noise and people.

Bad enough that last week the court narrowly redefined Miranda rights in such a way that seems to say that if one of those aforementioned people is arrested and remains silent about their right to remain silent, anything you do say, if you say something, can and will be held against you. An interpretation as worthy of Lewis Carroll as it is George Orwell.

But of course such reasoning is not surprising from a court that ruled earlier this year that corporations are people, too - really BIG people - whether you're a major banking entity bilking the little guy for billions or a petrochemical giant obscenely filling the Gulf of Mexico with crude, like Rabelais' Gargantua, relieving himself from the towers of Notre Dame and drowning the city of Paris.

The Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United ruling cited free speech as its reason, giving corporate America the right to pour unlimited money into political and issues campaigns, lavishing cash on whichever candidates run fastest to do their bidding.

This week, the Supremes went even further, proving once again that when it comes to American politics and government, money talks, and it does so with the biggest, loudest megaphone dollars can buy.

On Tuesday, the court issued an unsigned, emergency order halting an essential part of Arizona's model campaign finance system. It grants matching funds to candidates who accept public financing limits but find themselves running against wealthy candidates whose pockets are so deep, money is no object.

As The New York Times reported, the stay "will probably remain in effect through both the primary in August and the general election in November. The court instructed the candidates challenging the matching fund law to file a prompt appeal. If the court agrees to hear the case, as is likely, it is unlikely to be argued and decided before the November election."

By then, of course, the damage will be done.

In the long run, the ruling could have an impact on similar finance campaign laws in other states, including Connecticut and Maine, but it immediately impacts 133 candidates running for state office in Arizona, including incumbent Gov.Jan Brewer, whose recent signing of the state's notorious illegal immigration bill has made her the favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

But she is a publicly funded candidate who was due to receive more than $2.1 million under the current Arizona system. Without the matching funds, according to the state's Clean Elections Institute, "That amount will drop by 66 percent to $707,447."

One of her opponents, businessman Buz Mills, already has spent $2.3 million, much of it his own money. Not surprisingly, he hailed the Supreme Court's order as "a tremendous victory for Arizona taxpayers and the First Amendment."

The New York Times quoted Richard Hasen, a professor at Los Angeles' Loyola Law School: "The developments in Arizona show just what a tough litigation environment it is right now for those in the lower courts seeking to defend reasonable campaign finance regulations.

“Without matching funds provisions, public financing programs are unlikely to attract substantial participation from serious candidates, who fear being vastly outmatched by self-financed opponents or major independent spending campaigns."

The ruling came down the same day that California voters rejected Proposition 15, which would have experimented with a publicly financed campaign system similar to Arizona's - starting with the next two elections for California's secretary of state.

Ironically, that defeat and the Supreme Court's action in Arizona occurred on a primary election day that saw Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina emerge victorious as California's Republican Party candidates for governor and senator respectively. Each of them spent millions and millions of their own money to win.

Whitman says she's ready to spend $150 million of her eBay fortune to defeat Democratic candidate Jerry Brown. No matter who comes out on top, that kind of cash will generate a lot of smoke.

Ordinary people may once again be outshouted by monied interests that wield their financial power like an authoritarian, plutocratic cudgel.

We need a constitutional amendment rejecting the anti-democratic course this Supreme Court has chosen. An amendment that establishes an equitable, public campaign financing system that levels the playing field for anyone who wants to run for office, no matter what their income or bankrolling connections.

And we need it now.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television.

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