The Supreme Court And Plutocracy

In 1972, a source nicknamed Deep Throat famously told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward to “follow the money.”

Woodward and reporting partner Carl Bernstein did, and less than two years after Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election to a second term, the House of Representatives voted articles of impeachment. Nixon resigned the presidency rather than face certain conviction in the Senate.

Oodles of unreported money at the Committee to Re-Elect the President financed the burglary at the Watergate complex and the coverup that followed it. The scandal resulted in an era of campaign finance reform aimed at lessening the impact of money in politics.

Over the past four years, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito – the five men who constitute the United State Supreme Court’s conservative majority – have done their best to undo any limits on campaign contributions.

In 2010, in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court ruled that the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions.

The decision blew the top off spending two years later; 2012 saw dramatic growth in spending on campaigns and the appearance of a long list of new political organizations funded by wealthy individuals.

In writing for the minority, former Justice John Paul Stevens predicted dire consequences, arguing that the ruling threatened “to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation …

“A democracy,” Stevens intoned, “cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

On April 2, the Court’s conservatives went a step further. In announcing its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Court struck down even the generous contribution limits in place: $48,600 in a two-year period for candidates, plus $74,600 for political parties or committees.

Wrote Chief Justice Roberts for the majority: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. We have made clear that Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

In effect, the conservative majority again invoked the First Amendment to sanction the purchase of democratic elections.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the minority that included Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, echoed Justice Steven’s dissent in the Citizens United case.

He argued that: “The First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters. …

“Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard … and a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.”

They already have. In this, the self-proclaimed “greatest democracy in the world,” voter turnout is plummeting. In presidential election year 2004, 60.4 percent of those eligible voted; in 2008, after exciting Democratic and Republican primaries, turnout rose to 62.3 percent; in 2012, however, it dropped almost five points to 57.5 percent.

Nowhere were the numbers more alarming than in Hawaii. In 2012, despite a keiki o ka aina on the top of the ballot, only 44.5 percent of those eligible to vote found their way to the polls.

Why? It could well be that Justices Stevens and Breyer got it right. When unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals, associations, unions and corporations own political speech, why should a mere person with a vote bother?