Chief Justice John Roberts’ first sentence of his majority opinion in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, striking down important limits on campaign contributions, declares “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” A look at the Roberts Court’s record, however, shows that this may not be its guiding principle. Through a series of rulings, the court’s conservative majority’s rulings have instead made it easier for big-money donors to influence elections — while making it harder for many Americans to use the only political influence they have: their vote. The court has done handsprings to accommodate claims that laws burdening donors’ ability to spend money in elections are unconstitutional. In Citizens United, for example, the court decided to schedule re-argument during a special court session — something very rare in the Supreme Court — to consider whether to strike down campaign finance restrictions on corporate expenditures as unconstitutional. (Which the court ultimately did.). The plaintiff in that case hadn’t even pressed such a radical argument, until the court explicitly invited it to do so.
The Roberts Court’s solicitude in protecting the ability of the super rich to participate in our elections through massive amounts of cash is, however, missing when it comes to protecting ordinary Americans’ right to vote free from discrimination. Last term, a divided 5-4 court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act that had successfully prevented racial discrimination in voting since 1964.
With respect to the first part of the equation — making it easier to spend money in elections — the Roberts Court has been steadily moving to disassemble the system of campaign finance regulation created by lawmakers of both parties and upheld as constitutional for decades.