The scene at the Supreme Court as justices heard oral arguments in McCutcheon vs. FEC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
One way of looking at the latest Supreme Court decision speeding the flow of big money into elections — a ruling destined to have a bigger impact on the culture of Congress than anything that happens at the Capitol this year — is that one side’s definition of political reality narrowly prevailed over the other.
Scenarios about the corrupting potential of so many more millions going to candidates, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asserted in the controlling opinion, “are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or divorced from reality.”
“In reality,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer countered on behalf of the four dissenters, “the anti-corruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest” than the five-person majority recognizes.
It’s hardly unusual that, after considering the same collection of facts and arguments, the court’s conservative majority declares the glass at least half full, while the liberal minority insists the same vessel is more than half empty. What’s remarkable in this disagreement is how distant the justices are from experiencing the reality of the modern political money system.
On the current court, only Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan have donated to federal candidates or political action committees in the past 16 years, according to the Federal Election Commission database of itemized contributions.
The most obvious reason is that the other seven justices have been sitting somewhere on the federal bench since before 1997, when the FEC began digitizing donation records. And, because of the obvious potential for a conflict of interest, the official code of conduct for United States judges prohibits them from making political contributions.
But that explanation leads directly to one of the longstanding criticism of the modern Supreme Court: It has become so dominated by professional jurists that people who have worked in the political arena have been almost entirely boxed out. Full story