Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Campaign Finance Laws' Category

Retired Judge Laments ‘Worst Government That Money Can Buy’

jim-nelsonThe problem of money in politics has grown so big that it seems to be “on steroids” now, laments retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson in an outspoken Helena Independent Record op-ed.

Justice Nelson takes direct aim at a line of U.S. Supreme Court cases beginning with Citizens United, saying the problem of big money overwhelming actual voters has become so great that what once was unimaginable is almost possible.

“So, what’s next?” he writes. “Will corporations and special interest PACs eventually get the right to actually vote? Why not? They’re already funding the worst government that money can buy.” Read more

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Senate Committee Votes to Curb Political Spending by Corporations

Despite an uphill fight ahead, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 on Thursday to advance a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit Congress and the states to bar corporations from spending to influence elections.

The “heated debate at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday underscores the intensity of the fight over the growing role of unlimited money in elections,” USA Today reported.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and the committee’s chairman, said Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance regulation have “twisted the meaning of the First Amendment” and “opened the floodgates to billionaires.” Read more

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JAS Files Brief on Campaign Contribution Limits Issue

JAS-LogoJustice at Stake submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on Tuesday, contending that a trial court order striking down campaign contribution limits threatens fair and impartial courts in Montana.

JAS urged the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse an order of the U.S. District Court striking down the Montana limits in 2012. Its brief maintains that the lower court misapplied relevant Supreme Court precedent and defied the settled law of the Ninth Circuit.

“This attack on contribution limits is neither justified by the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence on campaign finance regulation, nor can it make sense when judges are elected,” said Liz Seaton, JAS deputy executive director, in a statement.

“If we are to maintain fair and impartial courts, no party, no lawyer, and no interest group should be able to make outsized contributions that can even subtly influence a judge to rule in a particular way. Contribution limits implement the Constitution’s promise that judicial decisions will not suffer even the appearance of favoritism,”   Seaton said.

JAS, The Campaign Legal Center, the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause signed the brief.

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Senators Face off over Proposal to Curtail Campaign Spending

dark_money_email_imageSupporters and opponents of a constitutional amendment to rein in campaign spending debated the proposal at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.  The hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on the so-called Udall amendment, SJ Res 19, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico.   Justice at Stake submitted a letter to the committee emphasizing the negative impact of campaign spending on judicial races, and attended the hearing at the invitation of the committee chairman’s office.

Speaking at the hearing’s start, Committee Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) described the amendment as designed “to repair the damage done by a series of flawed Supreme Court rulings.”  One of these rulings,  the Court’s Citizens United decision, he described as  having “opened the floodgates to billionaires.” In an historic appearance, both the Senate’s Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Minority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) testified before the committee.  Testifying for the amendment, Reid deplored the “flood of dark money” flowing into elections;  McConnell countered that the amendment would weaken the right to free speech. Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Tex.), argued that the proposal would have far-reaching impacts on free speech by groups on both sides of the aisle.

Spending in state judicial elections was cited by one witness, North Carolina State Senator Floyd McKissick, who pointed to the out-of-control spending in the state’s recent judicial races.  The state saw more than $1 million spent in a May primary for a single state Supreme Court seat.


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Campaign Giving Limit On Way Out in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s limit of $10,000 for the aggregate sum a donor can give to all political candidates in a year appears destined for history as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling (see Gavel Grab).

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that state election officials said in federal court proceedings they could no longer enforce the limit. Mike McCabe of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Justice at Stake partner organization, said the decision is “going to vastly increase the power of a few hundred donors.”

In another state development tied to campaign finance laws,  the California legislature finished its approval of legislation that the Los Angeles Times said “would force nonprofit groups and others to disclose the true source of large contributions to California campaigns.”

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McCutcheon’s Ramifications are Debated

The U.S. Supreme Court’s milestone recent ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is continuing to draw a deluge of analysis and commentary. The ruling struck down a $123,000 limit on aggregate individual donations to federal candidates and political parties in an election cycle.

The 5-4 court majority effectively jettisoned “the post-Watergate system of campaign finance regulation,” Linda Greenhouse wrote in a New York Times commentary, entitled “An Indecent Burial.” Norman Ornstein, focusing on the majority’s limited view of what constitutes political corruption, wrote a National Journal piece headlined, “Could America Become a Banana Republic?The Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon ruling paves the way for a new era of political corruption in the U.S.”

“Can’t We Just Say the Roberts Court is Corrupt?” asked a Moyers & Company commentary. Tom Levenson had an opinion piece in The Atlantic, and Zephyr Teachout authored a commentary in Politico.

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IRS Looks at Revising Proposed Rule on Non-Profit Groups

IRS_logoIn February, Justice at Stake said in comments submitted to the federal government that a proposed U.S. Treasury Department rule to curb  501(c)(4) “social welfare” non-profit groups could have unique and unintended consequences for the courts (see Gavel Grab). Now Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen says the proposed rule likely will be rewritten.

According to a USA Today article, Koskinen said, ”In all likelihood we will re-propose a redefined rule and ask for more public comment.” The IRS is responding to comments submitted from groups on the right as well as the left. More than 150,000 comments, a record number, were submitted to the IRS about the rule.

The Obama administration is seeking to curb so-called “dark money” flowing from nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors, to political campaigns. The rules, among other things, would have expanded the definition of “candidates” to cover federal nominees, including judicial nominees, and broadened the definition of “candidate-related political activity” to include such activities as nonpartisan voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote activities and distribution of nonpartisan voter guides. Read more

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Op-Ed: “McCutcheon” and the Nature of Corruption

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdThe U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is especially striking in light of the recent “Adelson primary” in Las Vegas, according to an op-ed in The New York Times.  The ruling, striking down the $123,000 limit on individual donations to federal candidates or political parties, is based on an overly limited view of political corruption, argues the op-ed.  It cites this passage from the decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts:  ”Government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford.”

But the op-ed maintains that the “Adelson primary,” in which casino magnate and political megadonor Sheldon Adelson held private interviews with a series of potential presidential hopefuls, tells a different story.  Such megadonors, the piece suggests, wield enormous influence that goes beyond ”general gratitude.” Continuing erosion of campaign finance regulations can be expected to increase this influence.

The McCutcheon decision has been criticized in a statement by Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg, who called it a ”big win for special interests and big spenders.” The case has been a flashpoint for concern about money in politics in general, and increases fears that state judicial elections will ultimately come under increased financial and political pressure.

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McCutcheon and the Supreme Court Experience Gap

In the past 16 years, only two of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices have donated to federal candidates or political action committees.  This is largely due to the potential for a conflict of interest and the official code of conduct for United States judges prohibits them from making political contributions.

A piece published in Roll Call earlier this week notes that this has contributed to a larger criticism against the court, that its justices are removed from the reality of money in campaigns and elections.  The piece notes that while personal experience is not supposed to play a role in judicial deliberations “it cannot help but inform a judge’s perception of the reality of every case.”

None of the current justices has ever sought elected office.  The last justice to do so is retired Supreme Court Justice and JAS Honorary Chair Sandra Day O’Connor, who was elected to be a state trial court judge in Phoenix, Arizona.  For more information on judicial elections and the effect of rising influence of special interest money, see The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-2012.

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Controversy and Headlines Continue After McCutcheon Ruling

Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC this past Wednesday, the decision has continued to make headlines.  On Fox News’s website, a blog discussed efforts by Democrats to tie the billionaire conservative Koch brothers to the result of the decision.  The blog mentioned that after the court’s 5-4 ruling had been announced, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York mused “I don’t think the Koch brothers lack for free speech.”

Dahlia Lithwick of Slate noted that the Citizens United ruling from five years ago had an 80 percent disapproval rate from the general public, and wondered if Chief Justice Roberts “doesn’t believe, or doesn’t care, that money corrupts politics.”  Meanwhile, the Anchorage Daily News asks if the decision will energize voters or do the opposite.  Describing American voters as “already angry at a distant, dysfunctional political system,” the piece calls into question how political leanings might affect reactions to the ruling.

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