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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”).

His father, Anthony “Bud” Kennedy, was a backslapping, hard-drinking partner in a powerful lobbying law firm run by one Arthur “Artie” Samish, “the “secret boss of California” who finally went to prison on tax charges in the mid-1950s, while young Tony was studying to enter law school. Samish liked to brag that he had amassed more power than anyone else in the state, including the governor, that he could buy any legislator with “a baked potato, a bottle, or a broad,” and that he was able to “unelect” any lawmaker who didn’t vote his way.

The major clients of Samish and Kennedy were racing, entertainment, and liquor interests, notably including Schenley Industries, then run by J. Edgar Hoover’s mobbed-up pal Lewis Rosenstiel. When Bud Kennedy died suddenly in 1963, young Tony was only two years out of law school. But he went into the family business and inherited his late father’s clientele.

While Kennedy always insisted that lobbying was only a “sideline” in his law practice, his billings were substantial – the equivalent of hundreds of thousands or more in today’s dollars. In 1974, he pushed through a bill for Capitol Records that saved the company (and cost the state) millions in sales taxes.

How did he do it? The same way that special interests work their will today – by doling out huge wads of cash to lawmakers on behalf of his clients. The single largest recipient of Kennedy lobbying largesse, according to the Los Angeles Times, was a legislator who introduced a bill to benefit the opticians’ lobby that Kennedy himself had drafted (it passed). He gave that guy alone about $6,500 in campaign contributions over six years, or roughly $40,000 in today’s dollars.

So if anybody on the Court knows how the political and legislative process is greased in this country, that would be Anthony Kennedy. After all, he was reared in the game. And it shouldn’t deceive anyone when he sounds as if he doesn’t understand how things work or who wins in that perverse process – and how everyone else loses.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons

A Week That Was Disastrous For Trump, Miraculous For Biden

Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he was elected president, according to a blockbuster report published by the New York Times on Sunday.

The Times report also found that Trump is millions of dollars in debt, incurred through a series of failed business ventures — a fact that runs counter to Trump's self-made image as a successful businessman. Trump has also used his financial failings to avoid paying taxes, the report found.

The president has resisted revealing his financial information since the start of his first presidential campaign, despite promising otherwise. "I would certainly show tax returns if it was necessary," Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in 2015. Yet for five years, the president has failed to produce the documents.The president paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, and paid another $750 in 2017, according to the report. And in 2014, Trump paid zero dollars in taxes.

Conservatives including Trump often suggest that undocumented immigrants take advantages of government services without contributing their fair share. Throughout his first term, Trump has repeatedly cast blame on immigrants and suggested they post an economic burden to U.S. taxpayers.

"Our current immigration system costs America's taxpayers many billions of dollars a year," Trump claimed in 2017 during his first presidential address to Congress.

That claim does not hold up to scrutiny. In reality, undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes every year. In 1996, the Internal Revenue Service created a program for non-citizens who work in the U.S. to report their income. Non-citizens who do not have a Social Security Number — including undocumented immigrants — are able to file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN. According to the IRS, 4.4 million people paid taxes using an ITIN in 2015, totaling $23.6 billion in tax revenue.

This raises the question: why would undocumented immigrants pay U.S. taxes if they are unauthorized to live in the country? Immigrants often choose to pay taxes in order to demonstrate "good moral character" when applying for legal residence or citizenship, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Undocumented immigrants who fail to pay their taxes risk deportation.

"Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, paid an estimated $328 billion in state, federal, and local taxes in 2014 alone," Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School, told the American Independent Foundation. "It is outrageous that the average undocumented immigrant in the United States pays more in federal income taxes than the President did in 2016."

This contrast is especially ironic given Trump's tendency to deride unauthorized immigrants as irresponsible lawbreakers. Trump has a tendency to respond to criticism with projection — when accused, he accuses others of the same thing.

"Yes, undocumented immigrants are helping fund the very system that detain and deport us," journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is undocumented, tweeted in 2019.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.