Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, has maintained a lively defense of Justice Ginsburg's comments critical of Donald Trump, writing first in the New York Times and then elaborating on his position in a Los Angeles Times op-ed and a podcast discussion with one of his faculty members, Rick Hasen. It's an interesting and instructive case about how the intensity of feelings about particular issues and candidates tends to drive views of the First Amendment and in particular of the wisdom of campaign finance restrictions. For Chemerinsky, in defending Justice Ginsburg, insists that more political speech is better than less, and he is clearly moved in saying so by what he views as the exceptional importance of the question – – the potential election of Donald Trump – – that Justice Ginsburg was addressing.
This is another application of the test of conviction on political spending issues. To what extent, when the stakes are high, will citizens and activists tolerate being told that they can’t spend however much they want, or operate as freely as they choose, in advancing public policy positions or promoting candidates?
Justice Ginsburg’s recent press comments have been noted mostly for her openly expressed disdain for the Trump candidacy. Less surprising in the remarks was the Justice’s “impossible dream” that Citizens United be overturned. She has said this before, and since she dissented in that case, there is not much news here, unless anyone still had doubts that for this Justice, the killing off of that decision is a priority.
The comment was reported at the same time as the Complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission by Representative Ted Lieu and others who intend to set into motion the reconsideration the Justice is hoping for. And so it invites an appraisal of its prospects for accomplishing the Justice Ginsburg’s “impossible dream.”
As my colleague Marc Elias has pointed out, the FEC cannot succeed; this is a lost cause. When the Complaint fails, it may do little more than unnecessarily promote the belief that CU is here to stay. It is not clear why this is the best legal maneuver, or the most effective exercise in public communications, in the attack on Speechnow and Citizens United.
Aside from the question of strategy, the Complaint itself is a surprisingly subdued performance. It has a bit the feel of going-through-the-motions: doing the least possible to set up the agency dismissal and the move to the courts. True, the Complainants knew that the outcome at the agency was inevitable and there is time later to build their argument. But the case they preview in the Complaint seems flat and this certainly can’t help the Complainants in their subsequent appeal.
This is one view of the effects of modern political reform, and here is another, and their conclusions are, in a sense, similar: reforms have not worked as intended. But they don’t have in mind the same failures.
Robert Samuelson thinks the reforms have weakened the political system, undermining political parties and blocking other channels for constructive compromise and effective governance. Isaac Arnsdorf argues that, in the case of lobbying reform, the laws have worsened corrupt practice, not curbed it, and he is most exercised by legislators' ability to wield influence for private profit after leaving office.
The one commentator thinks we have government enfeebled by the unforeseen effects of reform; and the other sees reform to have left government more corrupt. Both analyses travel the familiar route of making a point that it invites the reader to take too far.
The FEC cannot apparently do enough to make its critics look good. The problem is not, of course, that the FEC as a whole, as a unified body, is taking action that invites complaint. It is the absence of constructive cooperation among the Commissioners when it seems that it should be possible. No one comes off well. And it all turns out worse than necessary. The Fox News Debate case is the most recent example.
It starts with the ostensible news, apparently actively promoted by one of the Commissioners, that the FEC had voted secretly to “punish” Fox News for expanding one of its sponsored Presidential debates to include more rather than fewer candidates. In fact, the FEC had to consider a formal complaint brought by an excluded candidate who was perhaps understandably miffed that he seemed to be the only Republican not permitted to take the stage in an August, 2015 debate, which involved a main event and an “undercard,” featuring seventeen candidates. The FEC did not go chasing after Fox: it was stuck with the task of resolving the complaint. And it always votes “in secret,” under statutory procedures, with the results publicly released later.
To address the complaint, the FEC had to apply the rule governing a media organization’s “staging” of candidate debates. These rules have been around for a long time—too long perhaps, and a reconsideration and revision may be long overdue. But the rule is the rule, and the General Counsel prepared a memo for the agency that found that it had not been followed. Rather than apply “pre-established objective criteria,” to the determination of which candidates would be invited, Fox improvised. It twice adjusted those criteria to maximize the candidates who would be included. And it freely admitted that it had done this “to include and accommodate” the large field.
Of course, the conclusion that this amounts to a violation of law seems more than a little peculiar. Fox was not engaged in the conduct the rule was concerned with: rigging the rules to favor particular candidates over another, which would be a form of prohibited corporate contribution to the golden circle of the included. For all practical purposes, Fox was dispensing altogether with any criteria for selection. As it happened, it still managed to leave out the complainant. After all, any criteria at all, even ones barely worth the name, will leave someone out.
A theme appearing in a number of post-McDonnell commentaries and editorials is that the Court has made more difficult the prosecution of bribery-based public corruption. It is certainly true that the Court has pared down the reading that could be given to bribery, and especially of the pay to play sort: paying for access alone, in the “typical form, such as arranging a meeting or phone call for someone to make a case for government action. As a practical matter, however, there remains considerable peril in access-buying. How much of a problem prosecutors will now face in bringing these cases is an open question.
In many corruption cases, some person’s (P’s) wish to have official A contact official B, to open up the channels of communication and advocacy, does not arise because B is somehow unavailable. B is or has been available, just not on the terms that the private party finds advantageous. B might rarely takes private meetings, requiring more formal submissions, or delegates much of the responsibility for face-to face encounters to staff. Or B has had the meeting with others present, and P would like a more private discussion. Or B has had the meeting, and P wants another, not confident that the first did the trick.
So P is looking for something he could not otherwise get, or so he believes, by having A ask B to provide the opportunity. Because B might not otherwise grant the audience, B is getting a message from A in many such cases—that A has a special interest in P, if not in P’s cause.
Depending on the facts, these circumstances, usually together with other facts, can constitute a trial question of exerted “pressure” from A on B, which the Court in McDonnell retained within its narrowed definition of “official act.” Neither P nor A are in the clear if P provided benefits to A in return for help with B.
- The Supreme Court and “Access-Buying” in McDonnell
- Reform and the “Chaos Syndrome,” Part II
- Reform and the “Chaos Syndrome”
- More on Campaign Finance and the Threat of Darkness: Trumpism and Issues Speech
- Again Before the Supreme Court: Can There Be “Issues Speech” During Campaigns?
- Ominous Uncertainty at the FEC, The Sequel
- Campaign Finance and the Threat of “Darkness”
- Deadlock and Ominous Uncertainty at the FEC
- The “Evidence” In Reform (and Anti-Reform) Argument
- Disclosure Wars, Continued: Tax Returns