Money and Politicians, Plus Judges

ThinkProgress reports that the Supreme Court sensibly ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that a state can restrict lawyers’ campaign contributions to judges. Chief Justice Roberts explained why:

States may regulate judicial elections differently than they regulate political elections, because the role of judges differs from the role of politicians. Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters. Indeed, such “responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.” The same is not true of judges. In deciding cases, a judge is not to follow the preferences of his supporters, or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. A judge instead must “observe the utmost fairness,” striving to be “perfectly and completely independent, with nothing to influence or control him but God and his conscience.” As in White, therefore, our precedents applying the First Amendment to political elections have little bearing on the issues here.

So a majority of the Court agreed that it’s important for judges not to be influenced by campaign contributions, because judges are expected to serve the public good. Does that mean it’s acceptable for politicians to be influenced by campaign contributions, since they’re expected to serve the interests of whoever gives them money?

The obvious problem with Roberts’s explanation is that politicians should serve the public good as much as judges. A President is supposed to serve the national interest. Senators are supposed to serve the national interest and the interests of their particular states. Politicians are only supposed to do little favors for people who give them money. Otherwise, we’d say the politicians were for sale!

After all, we vote anonymously so that nobody, not even the candidates, know who we voted for. That makes sense, because how a particular person voted shouldn’t matter to a politician who represents “the people”.

But doesn’t that suggest that campaign contributions (assuming they’re legal at all) should be anonymous too? Politicians shouldn’t know who gave them money or spent money on their behalf, because they’re not supposed to be influenced by such things. They’re supposed to make their decisions on the merits, not reward the rich people or groups who paid for their campaigns. Nor should politicians be able to extort contributions by threatening anyone.

Anonymous campaign funding was the subject of a 2004 book called “Voting With Dollars” written by two law professors. They argued that all voters should be given government-financed “gift cards” that could only be used to finance presidential campaigns. Last year, two political scientists called for making all campaign contributions anonymous, even those made by major donors:

Indeed, if we think about all the ways transparency helps contributors and candidates put pressure upon each other, it is clear that reporting contributions can make matters worse. Suppose, then, that we turned out the lights? What if we let Adelson and Shaun McCutcheon spend their money on politics but not take credit for their “generosity”? What if we made all campaign contributions and independent expenditures anonymous — and made sure they stayed anonymous?

I don’t know if it’s possible to design a system that would guarantee anonymity. If people contributed to a general fund from which payments were made to their candidates of choice, it would be difficult for the contributors to see that they’d made a specific contribution to a particular candidate without their having the ability to share that information with the candidate in question. Maybe it would be enough to make it illegal to communicate the source of donations or “independent” spending, as the political science professors suggest.  

In addition to reducing the number of favors politicians did for their major contributors, anonymity would theoretically reduce the amount of money in politics too. Presumably, some of the wealthy would limit their spending if they couldn’t expect something in return. Of course, even anonymous contributions won’t solve the Big Money problem. Fixing that will require a majority on the Supreme Court that doesn’t equate unlimited political spending with free speech.

1 thought on “Money and Politicians, Plus Judges

  1. Ever since Bush v Gore, my attitude has been that the Supreme Court is basically a political body, at least when anything political comes to them. The more familiar I become with American history, the clearer that is to me. They’ll rationalize whatever decision they can get five votes for. And who gets to participate in the vote, who gets appointed to the court, is a starkly political process. People should remember that every time they vote for a Senator or President.

    On money and politics, even if campaign contributions become anonymous, you can’t prevent contributors from publicly saying who they donated to, at least without violating the first amendment. I think the only real solution is public financing of campaigns coupled with candidates banned from accepting donations.

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