In yesterday's narrow 5-4 ruling, a majority of the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yet again in favor of rich donors over everyone else. This opinion, in particular, enters the annals of the truly bizarre. The Court deemed unconstitutional Arizona's "Clean Elections Act": not because it contained limits on campaign donations though. No, Arizona's law attempted merely to balance the scales, and gave financial support to publicly financed candidates to match donations received by well-healed and well-financed opponents. With this decision, now efforts to provide public support for candidates to serve as a counterweight to wealthy special interests offend the First Amendment rights of those wealthy interests.
It's official. It is the end of major combat operations in the Class War, and the wealthy have won, hands down.
In 2010, the Supreme Court decided another critical campaign finance case. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court found that corporations had free speech rights, and attempts to limit their ability to support independent efforts on behalf of candidates for federal office were deemed unconstitutional. But yesterday's decision goes even farther. In Arizona's Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, the Court found that the provision of certain public funds to candidates itself runs afoul of the First Amendment too.
But whose rights does it offend exactly? Believe it or not, the Court found that such matching grants violate the rights of the donors to the opponents of publicly financed candidates. That's right, the grant of public funds to certain candidates, to offset the corrosive influence of money in our electoral system, is now considered a violation of the rights of those who stand in the best position to corrupt that system: unfettered wealthy donors. A more tortured reading of the First Amendment would be difficult to find.
One central feature of the Arizona law that the majority of the Court found unconstitutional was its matching funds portion. Under the law, a publicly funded candidate who agreed to spending limits was given additional funds when his or her opponent received outsized financing from outside groups, or was heavily self-financed. This dollar-for-dollar match to the money coming in from such sources both ensured a level playing field and also might have discouraged donors from making contributions to the candidate of their choice, knowing their candidate's opponent would receive public matching funds for every dollar he or she contributed.
According to the majority, this matching system offended the rights of the wealthy donors: what advantage would they have if their donations were watered down by matching funds going to the opponent? What's the point of an advantage if you can't exploit it? Apparently, according to a majority of the Supreme Court, that advantage comes with constitutional protections of the highest order.
What's left after Citizens' United and the Arizona decision? In order to rid our political system of the corrupting influence of money, and to limit the ability of those with the money from taking unfair advantage of such a system, the Supreme Court leaves the public no option but to push for a constitutional amendment that would, first, curtail the First Amendment rights of corporations to engage in unfettered, independent support of particular candidates, a right presently protected by Citizens United. Second, such an amendment would respond to this recent decision and free all levels of government to run fair and publicly financed elections if the people demand them, which is all the Arizona law did.
Income inequality in the United States has reached levels not seen since before the Great Depression. This inequality has given the wealthy an unfair advantage when it comes to their ability to finance our elected officials' campaigns, giving those candidates that will protect the interests of such donors a healthy leg up. The Supreme Court has only strengthened the ability of some to have outsized influence over such willing candidates. And the Court leaves the public with little choice but to press for a constitutional amendment that will protect everyone's rights, and ensure that the wealthiest are not able to silence everyone else.