The de Blasio campaign finance investigation ended with explanations from federal and state authorities of their decision not to pursue charges. The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. chose to give the lengthier account: ten pages of conclusions of law and facts in a letter to the State Board of Elections, which had referred the matter for investigation. Yet again in recent legal history, the prosecutor declines to prosecute but does not stop there, adding his disapproval of the conduct he would not indict. He also suggests how the law could be improved so that it more directly, clearly prohibited the actions he does not approve of. The letter is something less than a model for productive prosecutorial encounters with the political process.
The District Attorney is passing on a case that involves a coordinated campaign of candidates, party leaders and party organizations to deliver support to targeted State Senate races. The question was whether party county committees became conduits for contributions to candidates that were larger in amount than what the candidates could accept directly. Donors were solicited for contributions to the parties, and the parties promptly provided the money to the campaigns for immediate use in paying their consultants. The coordinated campaign drew up plans for this arrangement with the county committees and submitted them to legal counsel for review. Counsel then approved of what the prosecutors refer to as an “end run” around the candidate contribution limits. The lawyer put his advice in writing and stayed in close contact with the client, providing “consistent advice” from planning to execution. The DA found no evidence of “bad faith” in the way the advice was sought or delivered.
Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has scattered few clues about his campaign finance jurisprudence. Commentators have had to make do with his concurrence in Riddle v. Hickenlooper, 742 F. 3d 922 (2014), a case involving a concededly defective Colorado law that discriminated against minor or independent candidates in the structure of contribution limits. Gorsuch’s concurrence could be read to question the more permissive standard of review that the Supreme Court in Buckley established for the defense of contribution limits. The Court allowed for scrutiny of contribution restrictions a step or more down from the strictest review: not attention to whether the government had a “compelling” interest and had “narrowly tailored” the means to achieve it, but a question of the state’s “sufficiently important interest” and the use of means that are “closely drawn.”
Gorsuch wrote in Hickenlooper that the two standards were “pretty close but not quite the same thing.” Id. at 931. To some observers, they seem not that close at all. They fear that any shift to a more rigorous standard would be the next and perhaps decisive blow to meaningful campaign finance regulation. The stakes, they believe, are high. But how high? And are there other questions to be raised about the political assumptions, perhaps also effects, of the leeway provided for the imposition of tight limits on contributions?
In this pre-Labor Day period when blogging will be light, here are a few notes:
1. Robert Mutch, who has written extensively about the history of campaign finance, has now published a guide to law and rules, Campaign Finance: What Everyone Needs to Know, just published by Oxford University Press. He means “everyone.” It is a citizen’s manual, with accessible explanations of abstruse statutory regulatory, and case law material, a chronology of major developments, and a glossary of key terms. He also provides throughout comments on the campaign finance reform debate. Mutch has a point of view on reform issues--who doesn’t?--but it is not harmful to his project. It adds a little zest to the discussion and more interest, therefore, for the general reader. That reader has long deserved a resource like this, and here it is, courtesy of Robert Mutch.
2. That same general reader might want to puzzle over some of features of the well-worn law that is Mutch’s subject. An interesting case now on appeal to the Supreme Court, which goes by the name of a plaintiff with an unambiguous politics--Stop Reckless Economic Instability Caused by Democrats--questions why it is that political committees in existence for at least six months, so-called “multicandidate” committees, may give upon passing out of their infancy more to candidates but less to political parties (provided they also meet other minimal conditions on the level of support received and given). The multi-candidate committee satisfying this 6-month waiting period can give a candidate another $2300 per election, for a total per election limit of $5,000. But its contributions to national and state parties are substantially cut from $32,400 to $5,000 and from $10,000 to $5,000, respectively.
In 1984 there was a flap over the funding of delegates slates. The Mondale campaign, it was charged, had cheated on the campaign spending limits by putting the money into convention delegate selection. Delegate financing hasn’t been an issue since then, and it still really is not, except that it is worth noting a case recently and successfully brought to loosen the limits on delegate financing. The case, settled with the FEC, frees delegates to accept contributions from nonprofit corporations. It is a step in the right direction in making the laws more sensible, admittedly on an obscure point, but it is still better to have legal reform happen whenever possible.
The Pillar Law Institute noted that individuals can contribute without limits to delegates, to fund convention-related expenses, but corporations, including nonprofit corporations, cannot. The Institute proposed to help delegates without means to attend the Republican convention, to supply them with educational materials, and to offer them legal support pro bono if necessary to defend them against litigation threats (e.g. from Donald Trump). It sued for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.
To the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined. Although the scope of such pernicious practices can never be reliably ascertained, the deeply disturbing examples surfacing after the 1972 election demonstrate that the problem is not an illusory one.
Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S 1, 27.
This was the magnitude of the conclusion that the Supreme Court drew about the prevalence or appearance of corruption when it upheld the contribution limitations of the Federal Election Campaign Act. The corruption problem was “not… illusory” but its scope could ‘never’ be pinned down. The Court then cited to the decision of the court below that had offered a few example of pernicious behavior with campaign funds in the 1972 presidential election. That was enough.
In the years following, enough has not proven to be as good as a feast. And in search of the feast, anyone with a point to make about the campaign finance laws has been pursuing conclusive data to support it. Corruption, or the absence of corruption, or the different definitions and measures of corruption, have all occasioned argument about the evidence, as has the related but different project of proving the “appearance” of corruption. Argument about the evidence has yet to be settled and there's every reason to believe that they never will be.
The related but still distinguishable argument about political inequality has meant the same search for clinching proof that policy follows money and makes for a “rigged” system. This week, the Center for Competitive Politics took after a widely reported paper about the correlation between the aspirations of the wealthy and the manufacture of public policy. Noting that Rick Hasen and Larry Lessig had made use of the paper in arguing for a political equality theory of regulation, the CCP cited to critics of the scholarship and its conclusions. In this critical view, which CCP evidently favors, there is substantial agreement across income groups about policy. So the study that purportedly shows that we have a democracy of the rich cannot survive close scrutiny. CCP suggests that this should bring sharply into question the “lofty solutions” of reformers.