The “conservative” majority on the Supreme Court of the United States had a chance to reconsider a piece of judicial activism known as Citizens United, and decided, instead, to double down.
Two years ago, by the narrowest of margins and using an idealist rationale presented by Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy the court went out of its way to overturn a 63-year-old law and two Supreme Court precedents in arriving at a decision that gave corporations the status of persons when it came to spending money on political campaigns.
It’s worth remembering that the court could have issued a narrow ruling in that case, but chose, instead, to issue a sweeping opinion that is playing a part in changing the face of national politics.
At the time, Kennedy wrote — one must assume with a straight face — that no evidence had been presented to the court that unrestricted campaign money ever bought a lawmaker’s vote. He added that unbridled independent campaign spending by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
One would have hoped that with the hindsight provided in the two years since that naive proposition, Kennedy would have had second thoughts.
And so, presented this year with an opportunity to rethink his position — or at least to view campaign finance reform in the favorite political light of conservatives, that of state’s rights — Kennedy could have artfully backpedaled.
Chance for a do-over
The court was asked to take another look in the context of a 100-year-old Montana law that was written not as a hypothetical response to the unhealthy influence of corporate money on politics, but as a real-life solution to the influence copper mining companies then exerted in state politics. In 1899, when state legislatures elected U.S. senators, William Andrews Clark, one of the state’s “copper kings” secured a U.S. Senate seat by bribing state lawmakers.
The Montana law was a reaction to verifiable corruption.
Still, Kennedy and his four allies stuck stubbornly to their contention that unlimited campaign spending doesn’t even give the appearance of corruption.
It is difficult to take such a contention seriously.
About the same time that William Andrews Clark was buying his Senate seat, there was an Ohioan who could have given today’s court a lecture on money in politics, assuming the court was actually interested in the topic.
Words of local wisdom
Mark Hanna was a man with strong Mahoning Valley ties. He was born in Lisbon and was the political rainmaker for the man who would become the 25th president of the United States, William McKinley. He’s often credited, accurately or not, with being the father of modern high-stakes campaigns. Karl Rove, principal adviser to President George W. Bush and one of today’s most successful campaign-fund builders, is an admirer of Hanna.
The quote for which Hanna is most famous is this: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first thing is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
This court chose to ignore Montana’s history, a history that recorded the corrupting influence of unrestricted money in politics. It’s apparently too much to ask that a panel of the nation’s presumably most brilliant jurists recognize what happens when history is forgotten.