Archive for the 'Citizens United' Category

The McDonnell Case: the “Messages” to Citizens

May 2, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

On two occasions, during the Supreme Court argument in the McDonnell case, the Deputy Solicitor General warned the court against narrowing prosecutable public corruption standards.  It would send a "terrible message" to citizens.  After the second time, Justice Breyer said he is “not in the business” of sending messages "in a case like this."  He meant a case that raised fundamental separation of powers principles.  To what extent would vague criminal standards empower prosecutors with their considerable authority to prescribe the boundaries of acceptable political conduct?

Chief Roberts went further and said that the Court’s experience with the argument that very day might prompt doubts that the Justices were wise in Skilling have let the honest services statute pass constitutional muster.

It was in that way an extraordinary argument, highlighting through dead-end hypotheticals and confusing exchanges the ambiguity of the law--an argument that defied the best efforts at clarification of everybody involved.

One FEC Commissioner’s Answer to Citizens United

April 7, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

FEC Commissioner Weintraub believes that she has hit upon a regulatory maneuver to stop publicly traded corporations from making independent expenditures, or unlimited contributions to independent expenditure committees.  At a time when newspaper editorialists carry on with attacks on the Commission as “worse than useless,” the Commissioner seems determined to prod the FEC to face the major “money in politics” issues of the day.

This is her theory: foreign nationals cannot make contributions or independent expenditures, which means that the FEC could establish that no corporation with foreign nationals as shareholders could engage in this political spending.  The rule would not bring about this result outright: it would require a corporation to "certify" that it was not making contributions or independent expenditures with these funds.  As a practical matter, corporations with foreign national shareholders could not risk making the certification and would forgo this political spending.  The Commissioner plans to direct lawyers to produce proposals that she and her colleagues can consider in a future rulemaking.

This is an interesting proposal, but it is generally appreciated that a Commission unable to agree on matters of lesser moment will not find a majority in favor of this one.  But even beyond that, the proposal is vulnerable to questions about its viability as a regulatory measure.

The Director of New America’s political reform program, Mark Schmitt, continues to ask for a fresh and realistic debate about campaign finance, and this is notable because his reform credentials cannot be questioned and because he states his case well and thoughtfully.  In an op-ed appearing today in The New York Times, he argues, correctly, that the reversal of Citizens United would not be as consequential as some assume. The questions about the role of money in politics would not be settled: in the cause of limiting the role of money and opening up the political process to the widest range of speech (and candidacies), the demise of CU would be a “minor step.”  He argues for the more central importance of other means of accomplishing core reform goals, such as public financing on the model of enactments in New York City and Seattle.

Schmitt does not discount effects, both direct and indirect, of CU, but he points out that it is just one of a long line of decisions limiting Congressional authority to regulate campaign finance, all the way back to Buckley.  In one way or another, the First Amendment unavoidably narrows the path reform can travel.

But this does not mean that that path is so narrow that it is for all practical purposes impassable. One of the lines of attack on CU is that it puts in doubt the constitutional support for any effective campaign finance regulation.  This critique holds that contributions limits—ordinary, regular contribution limits—may be next on the chopping block.  The McCutcheon case is then cited as evidence—at least as a signal—that the end may be near.

Of course, the more dramatic reading of CU, a turn away from Buckley, could turn out be to the case.  A Supreme Court willing to go as far as it did—and farther than it needed to –could well look for other opportunities to bring down the Buckley framework.

On this question, it has been useful to consider Judge Merrick Garland’s record on campaign finance.  He wrote for an en banc Court of Appeals in Wagner v, Federal Election Commission, 793 F.3d 1 (2015), upholding a complete ban on contributions to candidates by individual federal contractors. It is a thorough, scholarly piece of work, and the Court was united behind it.

Justice Scalia and Campaign Finance: A Puzzle

February 17, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

In the tributes to Justice Scalia and the immediate appraisals of his life’s work, his campaign finance jurisprudence will come up and the late Justice is described as a formidable foe of regulation.  And he certainly could be a hard-charging skeptic, a member of the majority in Citizens United and other cases that blunted the reform movement toward more regulation or undid rules already in place.  But it is not the whole story and it misses a question at the center of his jurisprudence that has yet to be clearly answered.

It is well known that Scalia at least relaxed his hostility to regulation within the distinctive domain of disclosure. He endorsed legislative discretion to impose disclosure requirements “where the idea uttered [is] in the electoral context.”  McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 344, 378 (1995) (Scalia, J., dissenting).  He went still further.

To the late Justice, campaign related disclosure was a positive good, important to the protection of electoral process.  To demand public accountability of speakers was to discourage lying and to promote a “civil and dignified level of campaign debate.” Id at 387.  Disclosure requirements would temper the temptation to “mudslinging” and “character assassination,” Id. at 382, and reduce the incidence of “dirty tricks.” Id at 383. Scalia scorned the suggestion that the American experience with anonymous pamphleteering had anything to say about anonymity as a constitutional right.  The case for protecting anonymous speech could not overcome the imperative of measures “protecting and enhancing democratic elections.” Id. at 381.

Scalia made this case for mandatory disclosure on originalist grounds, but in light of his reasons for opposing other forms of regulation, the argument is intriguingly constructed. It presents a puzzle.

How far the politician can go in accomplishing political aims, or in meeting political obligations, without being corrupt is implicated in a case like McDonnell, now to be decided by the Supreme Court.  On questions like this, there is a tendency to avoid coming to terms with the element of self-interest as a feature of a political career.

The politician who holds public office can be expected to make the most of official position to advance the prospect of reelection or advancement, and this will mean special handling of political significant matters or the interests of political supporters. The Supreme Court in Citizens United and McCutcheon has concluded that the “ingratiation and access” associated with political support are not a problem of corruption.

But the case law and commentary sometimes dress up the politics in claims about the importance of freeing politicians to have contact with voters and constituents-- to learn from them, to stay close to the people etc.  It is suggested that what is at stake is democracy.  The complexities of the political art, which include what it takes to be a successful politician, are delicately kept out out of the discussion.

The government’s brief in McDonnell acknowledges that there is some room for politicians to reward friends and refers to the common case of special access afforded political allies and supporters.  The line it draws is between this “procedural” access – – the opportunity to get the politician’s ear – – and the further step of exercising influence on the supporter’s behalf: “influence [of] the disposition of governmental matters by others.”  Brief for the United States in Opposition, Robert F. McDonnell v. United States of America, Docket No. 5-474 (U.S. 2015), at 25 n.9.

This seems like a sensible solution.  Offering an audience for a request is one thing; it is not the same as taking action, or exercising influence so that others act, to grant the request. But the application of the distinction is challenging.