The voting rights and campaign finance wars have been fought on terrain largely shaped by two major and controversial decisions: the Crawford case on voter ID requirements, and Citizens United on independent spending. Critics have lamented Crawford’s naiveté about the stated value and inevitable partisan misuses of ID requirements, but it seemed that supporters had going for them the “common sense” judgment that voters required to have an ID to board a plane can be reasonably asked to produce one to vote. So one might have thought that Crawford was here to stay, even as the Justice who wrote for the Court, John Paul Stevens, has expressed regret.
Citizens United got more bad press in many quarters for opening up direct corporate political spending and for giving a boost to Super PACs. Its author, Anthony Kennedy, continues to defend it. He points to the silver lining: the court’s brief, arguably cursory, salute to disclosure, even as Kennedy concedes it is not yet working in practice as he had hoped it would. The critics who think the court flipped open the Pandora’s Box of campaign finance have put whatever hopes on the antidote of disclosure, and more speculatively on a constitutional amendment to overturn the case’s core permissiveness.
In light of developments of recent weeks, it is interesting to consider where the law set in motion by these cases is heading.
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?
The FEC tries to make up its mind, case by case, whether an organization distributing political material is a “press entity” engaged in a “legitimate” press function. It concluded some time ago that Citizens United was a press organization when producing and distributing documentaries. Advisory Opinion 2010-08 (June 11, 2010). This year it could not decide whether to bestow similar grace on another documentary producer, one who evidently does not care for President Obama.
Commissioner Weintraub tersely noted that the producer sent free samples of his product to millions of households in 2012 “swing states.” This was enough for her to conclude that the producer may have been a "press entity" but it was not acting like one: it was not engaged in a “legitimate” press function.
The General Counsel reached a different conclusion and recommended that the FEC let things go—that it exercise its broad discretion in the producer’s favor. It seemed to agency counsel that this particular press entity was acting legitimately enough. The General Counsel credited the claim that the free distribution was a commercial promotion and not only, if predominantly, in “swing states.” The producer appeared to have demonstrated sufficient commercial or business purpose by arranging for sales through websites and via Amazon, and by contracting for streaming services through both Amazon and Netflix.
Commissioner Goodman, joining his Republicans in voting with the General Counsel, added a charge that the Democratic objections were a threat to press freedom.
The 10th Circuit decided another disclosure case, Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams, on the mandatory reporting of “issue speech”. It held that an individual collecting small sums to wage a campaign on ballot questions did not have to comply with registration and disclosure requirements applicable under state law to “issue committees.” The "committee" that was really just a one-person enterprise was too "small scale,” the government's interests too limited: the cost in the particular case exceeded the benefits.
Did this result turn in any way on the nature of the advocacy – – that it was on issues, not for or against candidates? The courts have long distinguished electoral from issue speech in determining the scope of constitutional protections. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1(1976); Citizens against Rent Control v. Berkeley, 454 U.S. 290 (1981); First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978). The government's interests in the case of campaign speech are more varied and include both the prevention of corruption and its appearance, and the assistance that disclosure provides to enforcement of contribution and other regulatory limits. The 10th Circuit found those rationales “irrelevant or inapplicable to issue committees,” and while it has upheld Colorado's issue committee disclosure in principle on the strength of another interest, the voters’ informational interest, it concluded that this interest was insufficient to sustain the law as applied to the Coalition for Secular Government.
In campaign finance law, this distinction between issues and campaign speech has led reform advocates and their allies in legislatures to insist that while the difference may matter to constitutional analysis some of the time, this cannot be not the case all of the time. They maintain that some issue speech is often campaign speech in disguise, and the Supreme Court in McConnell upheld "electioneering communication" disclosure on the basis of its finding that some issue speech was a “sham.” Now the courts must entertain claims in as applied to cases that the plaintiffs’ issue speech is not a sham, that it is the real thing, and that it cannot be regulated as campaign finance spending.
How did Justice Scalia come to write a dissent as he did in McIntrye, insisting on the role of disclosure and relying for the power of his point on the need to follow the judgment of legislators in protecting or enhancing the electoral process? The question this raises is not whether Scalia was or was not a conservative on this issue, but what kind of conservative he was. As it happens, the explanation also sheds light on the recent history of campaign finance reform and the Court’s response. The emphasis here is on “response”, for the Court—and Justice Scalia—responded to developments in the law, and in political practice, from Buckley onward, and his position may be fully understandable only within this context.
One day there may be personal papers and other accounts not available today that will fill out our understanding of Justice’s Scalia’s thinking, but in the meantime, the best sources are what he wrote and said, and most of all, what he chose to write, as Justice, in opinions, concurrences and dissents. It has to be granted at the outset that he addressed the issue outside these opinions, and perhaps inevitably on these occasions, in interview or casual comment, he himself oversimplified. He would say “the more speech, the better,” provided that the audience could know who was paying for it. This would give observers reason to imagine that he was a “free speech” absolutist.
As Robert Mutch reminds us in his comprehensive history of campaign finance reform, there were such absolutists on the attack against the Watergate reforms from the very beginning. Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform 140-143 (2014). They gave disclosure some room, but they were otherwise firmly against the other elements of the law in place today, which means contribution as well as expenditure limits. Mutch argues that they needed a fresh hand to play in this game, and it was constructed out of what he takes to be novel claims of “free speech”—to restrict the use of money in politics was tantamount to restricting speech. They disdained any rationale for these restrictions, the corruption rationale as well as (and perhaps especially) another grounded in considerations of “equality.” They brought the case known as Buckley on this ground, and, the Court having split the difference—money was speech in some but not in all ways-- they were not happy with the outcome.
Early in his tenure on the Court, however, Justice Scalia declared that “Buckley should not be overruled, because it was entirely correct.” Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, 683 (1990) (Scalia, J., dissenting). He was primarily concerned to defend the “express advocacy” line that Buckley had drawn around independent expenditures, but he was satisfied that the Court had properly upheld contribution limits as measures targeted at the “plain” risk of corruption:
Certain uses of "massive wealth" in the electoral process – – whether or not the wealth is the result of "special advantages" conferred by the State – – pose a substantial risk of corruption which constitutes a compelling need for the regulation of speech. Such a risk plainly exists when the wealth is given directly to the political candidate, to be used under his direction and control.Id. at 682. The Justice also did not then question, nor at any time later, the value of disclosure, which the Buckley also sustained on the strength of the anti-corruption interest. So overall, Scalia thought Buckley had gotten it right, establishing the express advocacy line which it had “set in concrete on a calm day”, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, 551 U.S. 449, 499 (2007)(Scalia, J., concurring), while allowing for limits-- but only to address the risks of corruption, not on the basis of an “equality” rationale.