Arizona campaign speech case: The Supreme Court's fights on behalf of rich guys.

Arizona campaign speech case: The Supreme Court's fights on behalf of rich guys.

Arizona campaign speech case: The Supreme Court's fights on behalf of rich guys.

Oral argument from the court.
March 28 2011 7:06 PM

Free Speech for Really Rich Guys

The Supreme Court finds a cause worth fighting for.

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And when the Justices are cross-examining the defenders of the clean-elections law, it's mainly to show how patently unclean their legislation really is.

Chief Justice John Roberts: "Would it encourage more candidates to [accept public financing] if you doubled the amount that was available for every additional amount that the privately financed candidate spends? He spends $1,000 over the amount and the publicly financed candidate gets $2,000. A lot more people are going to do the publicly financing route if that were the case."


Justice Scalia: "I don't know how you can say that there's no evidence that it's been deterred. Is something true just because you say it? … There was testimony in the district court from individuals who said that they withheld their contributions because of this. It's obvious statistically also that many of the expenditures were made late in the game, where perhaps they were not as effective, in order to be unable to trigger the matching funds in time for the opposing candidate to do anything about it. I do not understand how you can say that there is no evidence. I mean, maybe you might say I do not find the evidence persuasive, but don't tell me there's no evidence!"

The court has found that state efforts to "level the playing field" are impermissible. So when advocates suggest that the object of the public-financing scheme is to prevent corruption, the Chief Justice goes all on them: "I checked the Citizens' Clean Elections Commission website this morning," notes Roberts, "and it says that this act was passed to, quote, 'level the playing field' when it comes to running for office. Why isn't that clear evidence that (the law is) unconstitutional?"

Bradley Phillips, arguing in defense of the law, has the temerity to suggest that the public-financing law may well lead to donors "thinking twice" about making campaign contributions but that the same might also be said of the disclosure rules. Roberts cuts him off to grit out: "Our cases, as you know, have drawn a distinction between expression and disclosure." Kennedy practically busts a blood vessel yelping, "Are you saying that anything that has to be disclosed can also be prohibited? I mean, I just don't see the equivalence here!"

Apparently the umbrage-o-meter has been calibrated so high today that even simple analogies are unconstitutional. You will never see more empathy on display on the right wing of the court than at the prospect of extremely well-financed candidates unable to pay enough to drown out their competitors. It's enough to make you want to start a telethon. Even Justice Stephen Breyer, usually the sunny voice of get-along-ish-ness at the court, unlooses a tidal wave of existential doubt toward the end of the argument when he defies counsel to answer him or not, but only if they want to: "McCain-Feingold is hundreds of pages," he says sadly, "and we cannot possibly test each provision which is related to the others. ... And it is better to say it's all illegal than to subject these things to death by a thousand cuts, because we don't know what will happen when we start tinkering with one provision rather than another."

Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor both do their best to try to show that this law doesn't in fact burden anyone's free speech and that it was enacted to try to restore voter confidence in elections, a goal that is constitutionally permissible. But it's clear that this will be a 5-4 reprise of Citizens United and that one more in a long line of campaign-finance restrictions is about to bite the dust. We can call the new single "Some Speech Is More Equal Than Others." Or better yet, "Death by One More Cut."