Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

GOP Activists Behind Three Troubling Supreme Court Cases Aimed at Dismantling Our Democracy

The 2013 Supreme Court term could roll back decades of progressive law.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Three troubling U.S. Supreme Court cases -- one that has already undermined public participation in elections and two new ones threatening to further tilt the balance toward wealthier and whiter slices of society—have all been brought by Republican activists who want to change the rules to benefit their shrinking political party.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a campaign finance case in which a wealthy Alabama Republican sued because he wanted to give more money than federal law allows in two-year election cycles. Shaun McCutcheon, the businessman-activist, joined by the Republican National Committee, challenged the $46,200 limit on donations to candidates and their committees, and $70,800 donation limit to other political committees. Less than 1 percent of Americans give this much to campaigns.

Next week, in another lawsuit originating with activist Republicans, Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court will hear a case on whether the heart of the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act, Section 5, is outdated and should be overturned. That section lets the Justice Department veto changes in election laws in 16 states that have had histories of race-based discrimination in elections. The VRA was used in 2012 to block GOP-backed voter ID laws in several states, as well as to overturn GOP-drawn legislative districts in Texas that diluted the possibility of electing Latinos to Congress. Republicans argue that racism in elections is a thing of the past. However, dozens of briefs filed by liberals argue that is not the case.

And in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the infamous Citizens United case, ruled that wealthy individuals and unions could make unlimited donations to political groups that were not formally connected to a candidate’s campaign. That suit originated with GOP activists’ efforts to smear then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a fall 2008 video.

The Citizens United ruling and another that followed in federal court were responsible for 2012’s billionaire political venture capitialists who bankrolled super PACs, which were shadow campaigns for specific candidates—first in the Republican primaries and then used by both parties in the fall election. These uber-wealthy groups were responsible for filling the airwaves in swing states with political mud, which dumbed down the debate and prevented down-ballot candidates from getting their messages out.

Stepping back from the devilish details of election law, this disturbing pattern emerges: Republican activists, with the backing of their party, have been successful in using the federal courts to rewrite—and to try to further rewrite—the rules of who participates and has the biggest megaphones in American elections. And they’re doing so as the Supreme Court has a Republican president-appointed majority that believes the wealthiest Americans and big businesses should spend freely in elections (suggesting they’ll rule for McCutcheon), and has previously said there were serious questions whether the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 was needed.

To be fair, the Democrats and President Obama are not angels when it comes to campaign finance reform. The president has done nothing to clean up the system that he mastered to gain office. And the Democrats have copied the GOP’s big money tactics, notably super PACs. However, it is the GOP that is leading the attacks on the equalitarian structures remaining in U.S. elections.

Next week, it will be an amazing spectacle to watch the arguments unfold at the Supreme Court as Republicans argue that there are no race-based prejudices at play in American elections—and accuse the Democrats and civil rights groups of cynicism for saying the Voting Rights Act is still needed. This will be an example of lawyering at its worst—arguing anything on behalf of a client and hoping those on the bench are uninformed enough about the realities to believe it.