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Idea of the Day: How the Supreme Court Ruled on Political Corruption

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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued yet another opinion striking down campaign finance laws as unconstitutional. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the court’s five conservative justices struck down the limits on aggregate contributions to federal candidates, national political parties, and political action committees, or PACs. The plurality opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts relied on a strikingly naïve view of political corruption—a perspective that Justice Stephen Breyer argues ignores the public interest in a representative democracy. Coming on the heels of what the media has termed the “Sheldon Primary”—for conservative politicians seeking campaign cash from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—the court’s opinion will give the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans even more influence over our political system. The ruling opens the door to complicated schemes that allow the wealthy to funnel millions of dollars to individual candidates.

The court noted that prior cases established that only “corruption or the appearance of corruption” can justify limits on “speech” in the form of money, and it essentially defined corruption as bribery—a definition that suggests campaign finance regulations can only target explicit exchanges of campaign cash for favors. Chief Justice Roberts commented, “Spending large sums of money in connection with elections … does not give rise to … quid pro quo corruption.” Chief Justice Roberts compared the aggregate limits to the government telling “a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.” The court denied that “mere influence or access” to politicians leads to corruption or the appearance of corruption. Justice Clarence Thomas did not join the plurality’s opinion and argued instead for striking down all limits on campaign contributions.

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This is part of a regular column: Idea of the Day

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