Rob Burgess

Rob Burgess Tribune night editor

In an electoral system awash in every assortment of corruption and moneyed influence, most of the U.S. Supreme Court justices surveyed the landscape and decided the only answer was: more money. The court announced its decision in the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case April 2.

“The Supreme Court’s divisive decision striking down a Watergate-era limit on campaign contributions was the latest milestone for conservative justices who are disassembling a campaign finance regime they feel violates free-speech rights,” reported Robert Barnes of The Washington Post on April 2. “The 5 to 4 decision [strikes] down the limit on the total amount of money wealthy donors can contribute to candidates and political committees.”

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen decried the ruling for what it was: the perpetuation of the landmark 2010 SCOTUS calamity, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. From the bench, Breyer exclaimed this latest decision “will open a floodgate.”

“It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign,” wrote Breyer in his dissent. “Taken together with Citizens United … today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed, but went even further than his colleagues. In his concurrence with Roberts, Thomas pined for the complete obliteration of all such confines.

“[McCutcheon] represents yet another missed opportunity to right the course of our campaign finance jurisprudence by restoring a standard that is faithful to the First Amendment,” wrote Thomas. “Until we undertake that reexamination, we remain in a ‘halfway house’ of our own design.”

The precedence for all this judicial folly extends back to the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, which planted the idea that money and speech were one in the same under the First Amendment. Whatever money is, it isn’t speech. If it is, then the poor are silent. That idea is totally against the spirit of the First Amendment; and it doesn’t sound patriotic to my ear. Neither does Citizen’s United, which swung the door wide for autonomous contributions by businesses and organizations. Now-retired Justice John P. Stevens wrote an impassioned dissent when the verdict was announced Jan. 21, 2010.

“In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant,” wrote Stevens. “Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. … Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”

The Founding Fathers could hardly have conceived of such a state of affairs. All told, the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections cost more than $2 billion each — around four times as much as the 2000 race. Every American must realize money talks in elections, at least in practice. In theory, though, true free speech belongs to everyone with a voice.

My solution to all this is simple: no more private money in elections; full stop. We’ve tried it the other way. It didn’t work out, obviously. Have the Federal Election Commission give every candidate the same amount of cash and be done with it. Problem solved. Let the ideas and candidates battle on even ground. That sounds more in line with what the First Amendment actually stands for.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at or on Twitter at



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