Using the Courts to Protect Campaign Finance Laws

This is the fifth installment of our blog series on Blueprints for Democracy, a new collection of solutions policymakers can implement to give everyone a greater say in their democracy. Read the full series here.

There is perhaps no single element of the campaign finance superstructure more derided than the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Rightly or not, many Americans use the ruling as a kind of shorthand for the explosion of money into the political system that has followed.

The Citizens United decision runs counter to a number of longstanding precedent protecting our democracy. The argument that this ruling was somehow inevitable or even consistent with past precedent is flawedthe Court in Citizens United had to overturn a 1990 decision, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that declared bans on corporate independent political expenditures constitutional. The move away from protecting campaign finance laws has, in large part, been a function of the Court’s shifting ideological composition, rather than accessory to some sort of unstoppable process.

District and appellate courts provide vital protection for all components of the campaign finance apparatus, from disclosure requirements to pay-to-play bans. Justice Kennedy, speaking for the Supreme Court, in October denied a stay in a Montana case brought by an independent group that sought to avoid disclosing its donors and political spending. And as we’ve discussed in the past, the courts have consistently upheld laws that limit contractor campaign contributions to preserve a system in which contracts go to the best, not the highest, bidder.

In the long-term, America will need to craft new jurisprudence in order to ensure that all people, regardless of wealth, are able to participate in their democracy. We firmly believe that the Constitution already establishes the principle that a group of well-heeled individuals should not be the only voices heard in our political system, but if the Supreme Court continues to disagree, then we will need to amend the Constitution.

Passing an amendment to the Constitution is by no means an easy task, but with broad support and pressing urgency, it may be a necessary one. We know this: the First Amendment protects rights that are individual in nature and increased wealth should not inherently impart increased influence. We need these principles to be clearly etched into our nation’s legal foundation, and an amendment may be the way to ensure that this happens.

As we move forward, it is important that our reform efforts protect the laws we already have in place while we push for more responsive jurisprudence. The future of American democracy depends on everyone’s ability to participate.