Gavel Grab

Hasen: Post-Citizens United Era ‘Worse Than Watergate’

After the Supreme Court issued its landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010, some reform advocates warned of Watergate-like scandals ahead. Now, a prominent election analyst says the new campaign finance order is even “Worse than Watergate.”

In a Slate essay under that headline, Richard Hasen of the U.C.-Irvine School of Law writes of a shockingly legal “influence free-for-all” that has evolved since Citizens United:

“How does the brave new world of campaign financing created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision stack up against Watergate? The short answer is: Things are even worse now than they were then.

“ The 1974 scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon was all about illegal money secretly flowing to politicians. That’s still a danger, but these days, the biggest weakness of our campaign finance system is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. … The rules increasingly allow people and corporations with great wealth to skew public policy toward their interests—without risking a jail time, or a fine, or any penalty at all. It’s an influence free-for-all.”

At USA Today, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an assistant professor at Stetson University College of Law, has a commentary entitled “Protect democracy from corporate cash tsunami.”

She makes a pitch for corporate disclosure to investors of political spending from company treasuries. Torres-Spelliscy also points to strong transparency laws in place in some states, as reported in June by a group called the Corporate Reform Coalition. “The only thing worse than a corporation trying to buy an election is one that gets to do so covertly without even letting its shareholders in on the secret,” she writes.

In the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai has a lengthy article headlined, “How Much Has Citizens United Changed the Political Game?” Bai’s analysis is challenged in part by Hasen’s Slate essay. Hasen operates Election Law blog.

Shortly after Citizens United was handed down, Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, emphasized the importance of campaign finance disclosure in judicial elections.

“States that elect judges should immediately enact strong, real-time reporting laws, so that special-interest spending is forced into the sunlight. Voters have a right to know who is paying to put judges on their courts,” he said. To learn more about the importance of robust disclosure laws, see the JAS issues page on the topic.


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