For a large and bipartisan majority of Americans, the increasing power of money in politics is alarming, but not for the conservative majority of the United States Supreme Court, whose members appear to regard the dollar’s domination of democracy as an inevitable consequence of constitutional freedom — and anyway, not a matter of grave concern. Expressed in their decisions on campaign finance, which continued last week to dismantle decades of reform in the McCutcheon case, the Court’s right wing sees little risk of corruption and little need to regulate the flamboyant spending of billionaires.
Given the behavior of certain conservative justices, such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – who flout the rules that govern partisan behavior among lower-court judges – it is easy to regard their rulings as partisan cynicism. But there is also an element of willful naiveté when the conservatives claim, for instance, that corrupt donations will be exposed by the instant transparency of publication on the Internet. Any reporter who has covered elections can attest that there are dozens of ways for wealthy donors to avoid public scrutiny until it is much too late to matter.
But if right-wingers like Scalia and Thomas are simply pursuing ideological objectives, what about Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan appointee from California who was long seen as a moderating influence and a “swing vote”? On the issue of campaign finance, Kennedy has marched along with the majority, seeming just as fervent in his urge to destroy every regulation and protection against the “malefactors of great wealth” erected since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.
It was Kennedy who wrote the majority opinion in Citizens United, which dismissed the notion that corruption will arise from unlimited political campaign contributions because they will all be disclosed. “Citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests …and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way,” he wrote. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
But if any Supreme Court justice knows how ridiculous that sounds, it must be Kennedy – whose own background as a corporate lobbyist and son of a lobbyist has been forgotten in nearly three decades since his Senate confirmation in 1987.
Yes, Kennedy was a respected appellate court judge before Reagan appointed him to the high court. But before that, he grew up and then worked as an attorney in Sacramento, where his father became a “legendary” lobbyist in a state capital renowned as “freewheeling” (a polite term that means “routinely corrupt”).