Last week the court declined to hear a case challenging a 100-year old ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates. The refusal leaves that ban in place which means, for the moment at least, corporations can’t DIRECTLY purchase politicians and will have to settle for indirectly bribing members of Congress as is the current practice.
The challenged involved two fundraisers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Those funders were indicted in 2011 by the Department of Justice for allegedly reimbursing employees for their political donations to Clinton. Those reimbursements amount to a direct political contribution. The funders argued that thanks to the Citizens United decision, those kinds of prohibitions were unconstitutional. So far the lower courts have disagreed. In this particular case, so to did the Supreme Court.
It’s hard to know how to read the decision not to take up the case, in part because it comes just after the court did agree to review a separate case that challenges the limits on individual donations to candidates and PACs. That case will be argued later this year.
The Roberts Court has been very friendly to wealthy political donors, affording them one of the greatest expansions of electoral access via “free speech rights” in modern history. It’s tempting to chalk the refusal to take a swipe at the direct ban as a matter of circumstance. After all, to review and presumably overturn the ban would have the effect of bailing out Hillary Clinton donors. We all know Justice Scalia has no interest in doing that.
More seriously though, it’s clear the court is searching for some limits and boundaries on the relationship between money, speech and politics which should give us all pause when we think of the battles that still lie ahead. 2012 may have been a historic year in terms of election spending, but that election only deepened partisan divides. 2014 will be a mid-term battle that puts 2010 to shame, and with an open presidential slot in 2016, it’s not an understatement to suggest their may be no greater issue before the court this term.
Photo from 401K(2013) via flickr.