Dealing with Citizens United: Second in a Series on Money in Politics

Last week we discussed the importance of taking political campaigns back from big donors. This week we begin examining the complexity of reinstating limitations without damaging what should be protected speech.

Citizens United[1] angered people about corporate legal rights. People want to remove those rights wholesale. But that view of the Court’s mistake raises far more serious First Amendment issues than most people understand.

Removing corporate protections would require distinguishing corporations that should be protected – political associations, broadcast, digital and print press – from those that should not be protected. That’s not easy. If corporations release “news” reports or take positions, are they press or stockholder associations? What would broadcasters’ or newspapers’ protections depend on? What would legitimate or prohibited explanations of corporate needs and positions be? First Amendment law developed around clear rules to prevent judges or legislators from deciding who can speak about what. Removing First Amendment protection from corporations cuts deeply against the First Amendment grain.

Constitutional rules, however, can be limited for compelling reasons. Citizens United revealed fundamental problems with the justifications, like corruption, for financial limits on participating in campaigns. Quid pro quo corruption is clearly illegal but regulation went well beyond it. Money can divert legislators’ attention from constituent needs toward donors’ needs, but can also expose misbehavior, or champion voters’ interests. Attorneys’ ethics prohibit us from engaging in deals or accepting gifts that create conflicts of interest – but it’s harder to define legislators’ conflicts where the donors or their allies are constituents. So the meaning of corruption has been vulnerable to attack and narrowing by the Court.

Large donations can entrench office-holders against challengers. But they can do the reverse by helping unseat legislators. The Court hasn’t been very receptive to that claim.

Political equality is a right, including rules surrounding voting, vote counting, and apportionment of districts. But just as clearly, economic equality is unacceptable here. The logical conclusion of economic equality would be a never realized vision of communism. Demanding some economic equalization in politics would force the Court to balance the extent to which economic equality can be required by political equality. That’s not a problem with a specific solution. And the Court is skeptical of allowing legislatures to define the balance because they have conflicts of interest. In any event, legislation doesn’t look promising in Congress or in most states. I’ve argued that the Supreme Court must consider equality in shaping economic rules, but that’s harder where it requires narrowing First Amendment principles. So financial equalization is hard to define and harder to argue.

Well-respected Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, argues that campaign finance restrictions would prevent legislators from becoming too dependent on a few powerful donors.[2] Dependence leads legislators to shirk their duty. But legislators shouldn’t be independent of their constituents or powerful voices. So, once again, what’s the right balance? Who is and is not entitled to participate in the political debate? And how much is too much, or too little? Moving beyond Citizens United will have to be done thoughtfully.

In any event, four of members of the Citizens United majority remain on the Court. Justice Kagan is new. People who know her well tell me that she is a First Amendment absolutist, which liberals would have applauded before Citizens United, and she is not likely to overturn it. So the decision will be with us for a while.

Next time we’ll look at the proposed amendments.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 12, 2016.

[1] Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[2] Lawrence Lessig, Republic Lost (2011); Ian Shapiro, Notes Toward a Conditional Theory of Rights and Obligations in Property, in Stephen E. Gottlieb, Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton and Robin L. West, Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications 914 (LexisNexis 3d ed. 2015) (“defin[ing] freedom in terms of the multiplication of dependent relationships”); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (2011); BRUCE BUENO DE MESQUITA, et al,  The Logic Of Political Survival (2003).

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