Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Campaign Finance Laws' Category

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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Supreme Court to Consider Another Political Donor Case?


US Supreme CourtIs the Supreme Court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission any indication on how it might handle a case on campaign contributions to candidates by corporations?

ScotusBlog reports the Court has been sitting on a case – Iowa Right to Life Committee v. Tooker – that would test a state’s flat ban on corporate donations. According to the electronic docket, the court is scheduled to consider it at its private Conference on Friday.

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McCutcheon Supreme Court Decision Likely to Affect Big Donors Most

The decision of the McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission case challenging the $123,000 federal aggregate limit could have the most effect on donors who already give large amounts of money to incumbents, according to a new report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP).

The report states that if contribution limits disappeared at all levels like after Citizens United v. FEC, most political donors in states would not be affected because they don’t give enough to reach the limit.

However, a ripple effect could be seen from those PACs, associations and other non-individual donors who give up to the limit and whose giving correlates to an interest in legislative activities.

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Michigan Governor Signs What Critics Call ‘Dark Money’ Bill

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (photo) has signed into law controversial legislation that would exempt disclosure of spending for “issue ads” and would double individual campaign contribution limits, according to

Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Justice at Stake partner organization, wrote a letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press that protested, “Gov. Snyder’s support of dark money taints his legacy.”

At, Snyder defended the legislation in an op-ed entitled, “New law increases transparency, upholds cornerstone of electoral system.” Read more

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Major Politicking Limits Proposed on Some Tax-Exempt Groups

The political activity of certain tax-exempt nonprofit groups, which have become major spenders in American elections, would be limited under proposed rules unveiled on Tuesday by the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department.

Tax-exempt “social welfare” groups, as organizations classified under tax code rules as 501(c)(4)s are commonly known, are not required to disclose their donors. They have become active in some state judicial elections. Under the Obama administration’s proposed limits, the scope of political activity permitted by these groups would be rolled back, the Washington Post reported.

By defining as “candidate-related political activity” the distribution of voter guides, voter registration, and airing ads that mention elected officials near Election Day, the proposed rules would jeopardize the tax-exempt status of groups that engage in these activities, according to Bloomberg News. Read more

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MI Senate Resists Greater Disclosure of Election Spending

The Republican-led Michigan state Senate has passed a bill that would exempt disclosure of spending for “issue ads,” even as Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson sought an administrative rules change to require campaign finance reporting by groups that air the ads.

Currently,  any ad that does not endorse a candidate is classified in Michigan as an issue ad, and there are no disclosure requirements for the donors who fund these ads. This kind of advertising has attracted the attention of defenders of fair and impartial courts, including Justice at Stake.

Earlier this year, the Michigan State Bar asked the  Secretary of State for  a declaratory ruling that would require donors to disclose their spending in judicial elections. Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner organization, submitted a letter to Johnson saying a massive lack of disclosure of judicial electioneering spending in Michigan fosters negative advertising that in turn harms public confidence in fair and impartial courts (see Gavel Grab). 

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