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Corruption Theorem: Money as Speech and the Supreme Court’s Death Blow to Democracy

| April 7, 2014

He laughs: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. (Stephen Masker)

He laughs: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. (Stephen Masker)

By Martin Dyckman

Running for re-election in 1974, Gov. Reubin Askew limited his contributions to $300 per person — no more than $100 for each of the three phases of the campaign.

The law allowed $9,000.

Sen. Lawton Chiles went one better when he ran for re-election in 1976.

He restricted his contributions to $10 a pop, or $30 for the course of the campaign.

Martin Dyckman

Martin Dyckman

Six years later, Chiles grudgingly yielded to new realities and raised the self-imposed limit — to $100. He stuck with it in his gubernatorial campaigns.

Those were the days.

Now, Chiles’ niece, Kay Hagan, has a multi-million dollar price tag on her head as she runs for re-election to the Senate from North Carolina. The Koch Brothers and Karl Rove have already thrown $10 million against her, forcing her to beg for money wherever, whenever she can.

It was merciful, in a sense, that both Florida statesmen died — Chiles in 1998, Askew last month — without witnessing the ultimate damage that the U.S. Supreme Court — or, more precisely, the John Roberts faction — inflicted on the nation Wednesday.

Leaving only in place — for now — a lid on direct contributions to parties and the $5,200 limit on gifts to any one federal candidate’s campaign, the court raised “to the number infinity,” as dissenter Stephen Breyer put it, what wealthy donors can contribute across the board.

So if a Sheldon Adelson or a Donald Trump decides to purchase the entire House instead of just a member or two, he can spread $2.3 million across the board and be confident that Speaker John Boehner will be grateful.

In his “Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce, the Gilded Age satirist, defined the noun “delegation” as an “article of merchandise that comes in sets.” Now, life once again imitates art.

There is no longer any bidding limit on the vast auction block American politics has become since the shining examples of Askew and Chiles, who won despite their self-restraint.

It helped, of course, that both were extremely popular incumbents in 1974 and 1976.

But they also had the comfort of knowing that no one could seriously outspend them. State and federal law at the time set reasonable limits on every campaign’s spending.

The beginning of the end of that age of enlightenment came in 1976, mid-campaign, when the court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that campaign spending was just another form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

More frightful damage came in 2010 with the Citizens United atrocity breathing personhood into corporations.

context floridaAlthough Buckley had lifted the lids on spending by candidates, or by others acting “independently,” it conceded the corruptive potential of gifts to candidates and to the parties supporting them. Just as importantly, Buckleyalso recognized the value of public perception.

But that obviously doesn’t matter to the Gang of Five. They care not how the government looks to anyone other than the Republican Party and what Theodore Roosevelt called the “malefactors of great wealth.”

It’s noteworthy that none of the justices ever held an elected office, much less ran for one. They have no experience with the fear of being outspent or the gratitude felt for donors.

But four dissenters understood that.

The ultimate cynicism of Roberts’ plurality opinion lies at the end, where he stated the government has no proper interest in barring anything but “quid pro quo” corruption. In other words, bribery is protected by the Constitution unless the donor and donee are stupid enough to make it explicit and to get caught at it.

The court’s apologists already are saying that this doesn’t change anything, that it simply lets the wealthy contribute directly — and openly — what they have been giving “independently” since Buckley or through corporate fronts since Citizens United.

Baloney. It makes it much too easy. And it leaves the public with the sickening view that our government is no longer ours.

As a journalist, I’m supposed to be pleased that the Gang of Five puts such a supreme value on the First Amendment.

But I’m a citizen first, and I think John Roberts has just signed a death warrant for our democracy.

No constitutional right is absolute. Each one is in a delicate balance with another.  Freedom of speech shouldn’t encourage corruption. Freedom of the press doesn’t let me sit in on jury deliberations or license libel. If I were to state as fact my personal opinions of Roberts and his co-conspirators, they could sue me.

So let’s close with this analogy. It’s only symbolic, understand?

Whorehouses don’t always occupy shabby buildings in seedy neighborhoods.

There’s one made of marble right across the street from our nation’s capitol.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives at Waynesville, North Carolina.

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14 Responses for “Corruption Theorem: Money as Speech and the Supreme Court’s Death Blow to Democracy”

  1. A.S.F. says:

    I think that the biggest bull about this ruling is the supposed “indignation” of Republicans over how “Hollywood” and George Soros “bought” the last two elections for Obama when any fool doing minor research can see that the major money spent by single donors in the past few years have been overwhelmingly Republican. The Supreme Cpurt ruling was split (predictably) down party lines. And the most obscene vote of all was that of Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife, Virginia Thomas, both founded and heads Liberty Consulting Inc.. One of their major focuses is lobbying for and fostering political donations. Justice Thomas should have recused himself from this vote due to Conflict of Interest. It’s simply shameful!

  2. BIG JOHN says:

    I wish we could impeach these Supreme Court Justices who have ruled that money is free speech.
    And, while we’re at it; let’s also get rid of the insane idea that corporations are persons.
    What does anybody else think? I’m waiting…….

  3. Steve Wolfe says:

    You can see that SCOTUS is always but one ruling away from condemnation. Both sides deride the decisions they don’t like. In this case, campaign contributions have been ruled as protected by the First Amendment. If it is truly another bad decision, it is one of many. I don’t think the SCOTUS is infallible. In fact I think they have actively shredded the Constitution for the last 100 years. But if the author is alluding that the Democrats are going to get outspent next election, it could just be a pre-emptive attempt to explain the inevitable victory of Republicans that the Democrats have handed to them by their own atrocious shredding of the Constitution. This time, Congress really has gone too far. All three branches have gone too far, and part of the evidence of this is the expansion of the 4th branch, the Administrative State. We now are ALL answerable to a huge number of unelected, unanswerable bureaucrats who’s only experience of the lives they lord over is their daily commute in the Washington, D.C. Metro area traffic.

  4. If President Obama can use a executive order to overturn this decision it would be a well used one , if not , then do what Bush did, fire these corrupt Supreme court justices he put in place , if he can get away with it so can Obama , it is totally illegal to buy elections , we have enough dirty politicians taking bribes from drug companies , oil companies and insurance companies , when is enough going to be enough ,, if not everyone reading this right now needs to get in touch with everybody they know and everybody they know , we need to march on Washington and rid our country of this corruption , it is no longer a free country , there is no Democracy when big business can buy Congress

    • Bill says:

      Umm when did Bush (either one) or any President ever fire ” Supreme court justices ” ???? One needs to know what the heck they speak of. I am all for reforming campaign $$$ maybe something like only being able to donate to those in your district, or all $$$ raised must be used in the county or state it came from? also no business can give and no unions only individual’s.

  5. Diana L says:

    I see no reason that anyone could defend this. If this doesn’t make every one of us RISE, nothing will.

  6. Reaganomicon says:

    Well, on a positive note now you can just make an appointment and shower your given candidate with cash instead of going through one of those complicated lobbying organizations. Perhaps we should form buyer’s clubs now for political candidates.

    And the next time someone claims that the US is a democracy, you can now laugh in their face with confidence, knowing that it’s a plutocracy.

  7. Tom Jacks says:

    But it’s ok for George Sores to fund numerous democrat pacs with untold millions, and Obama to raise over 1 billion to be used by democrats.

    • A.S.F. says:

      @Tom Jack says–No one is saying that is OK.. In fact, we are saying exactly the OPPOSITE. The Supreme Court vote was split down party lines. The Republican-leaning Justices voted against limiting donor dollars. The Demcratic-leaning ones voted for those limits. Those limits would have applied to everyone across the board who might try to buy influence with obscene donations, whether they were Democrat or Republican. Keep up!

    • Diana L says:

      No, it is not okay with me for George Soros, the Koch’s, Adelson, etc. buy our elections, just like it is not okay with me that the NRA, Brady, any other group buys our politicians. If Corporations are people, why aren’t they paying taxes like people do? Instead of us arguing who buys whom, let’s work together to make sure our elections and politicians are not being bought by the rich. If this can’t unite us , nothing will.

      • Steve Wolfe says:

        Corporations don’t pay taxes. People pay taxes. That is, for a business, taxes are an expense which they cover with the price of their products. When you buy toilet paper you are paying Mr. Charmin’s taxes for him. When corporations lobby for lower corporate taxes they are ultimately trying to build your buying power by reducing their costs. Also, your 401k is invested in companies like Charmin so their obscene profits are also paying for your future lifestyle. There’s but 2 reasons to fight for low business taxes. Since you must buy goods and pay your income taxes, your property taxes, your gasoline taxes, your cell phone taxes, your cable taxes, your dining taxes, your utility fees, cigarette taxes, red light camera tickets, estate taxes (taxation of the dead!) and other built-in taxes, wouldn’t you rather pay less for toilet paper if you can? At least the toilet paper serves an actual purpose. And remember, every time you wipe you have invested for retirement.

  8. nomad says:

    The Chinese own large amounts of US businesses / wealth and it stands to reason they will now be buying politicians who will ensure that US polices are beneficial to China. Other countries will possibly be able to do this too – just like Israel and the Middle East kingdoms have being doing since way back when. History does repeat itself in the sense that all great empires do fall. Of course, it is always excruciatingly painful for the ordinary citizens with limited resources. The rich are not patriotic.

  9. rickg says:

    Money is speech idea is absurd.. It would be hilarious if it were in a Monty Python sketch but alas SCOTUS feels that wealthy people have more of a right to free speech than the working class… Nothing new here..

  10. Steve Wolfe says:

    Hi Rick. How about money as property? Can you dig that one? It’s true, if looked at from the originalist perspective. But SCOTUS has been shredding the Constitution for many decades now. You would never be able to reverse-engineer our Constitution through observation and current practice. You have the right to your property, including the commodity called money which you get in return for the product of your labor. You also have the right to assemble with like-minded folks. Sometimes assemblies become corporations because they are like-minded about trading a product for money. The sinister nature often ascribed to corporations is just political marketing in most cases. It’s another means of class warfare. But if you formed a corporation, and you felt that the government was doing things that endangered your ability to fairly trade your product for money, you might do whatever you could to try to turn things around, including making your speech as effective as possible with your money. You had that right before the SCOTUS ever touched this issue.

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