Opinion

The Great Debate

Opening the political money chutes

The headline about a new Supreme Court opinion rarely tells the whole story.  Rather, the detailed reasoning of the ruling often reveals whether a decision is a blockbuster or a dud.

When the court writes broadly, it can eventually remake entire industries, government practices or areas of the law. Lawyers and lower courts scrutinize an opinion’s every line and footnote, pouring over the legal reasoning and noting subtle changes from the court’s earlier decisions in the same area.

This is why it is fair to call last week’s Supreme Court ruling in the campaign finance case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission a blockbuster case. In McCutcheon, the court struck down limits on the total amount that an individual could give to federal candidates, parties and certain political committees in an election cycle.

The ruling is itself significant, and will channel a great deal of money into the hands of party leaders — opening up new ways for big donors to buy access to elected officials. But just as significant is the court’s reasoning — which could well lead to courts striking down what remain of campaign finance limits, including limits on contributions to individual members of Congress. We could be on our way to politicians accepting multimillion-dollar contributions from a single donor.

Elsewhere I have explained many of the subtle but significant shifts in reasoning and definitions that turn McCutcheon from a narrow holding on “aggregate limits” into a broadside against most campaign finance limits. This led Justice Stephen Breyer, in his dissent, to say that Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

McCutcheon: Should the rich speak louder?

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down its most important decision on campaign finance reform since Citizens United. The decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, seemed to divide along familiar ideological lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion for five conservatives and Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the dissent for the four liberals.

What really divided the court, however, wasn’t partisan politics pitting Republicans against Democrats but two conflicting views of the First Amendment. Which view you embrace depends on whether you see the McCutcheon decision as a principled triumph for unpopular speech or a First Amendment disaster that will ensure that a handful of the richest Americans can use their vast resources to drown out the voices of everyone else.

The First Amendment view embraced by Roberts and his conservative colleagues is rooted in individual liberty. There’s no right in our democracy more fundamental, Roberts began, than the First Amendment safeguards for “an individual’s right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political association.”

  •