by Jonathan Singer, Tue Jan 19, 2010 at 02:12:02 PM EST
The good news is that a conservative Supreme Court recognized the deleterious effect that unlimited campaign spending is deleterious to the American democracy, and that it did so unanimously. The bad news is that this happened 125 years ago in Ex Parte Yarbrough, the so-called "Ku Klux Klan case" in which the Court upheld a federal statute prohibiting the use of intimidation to stop others from voting. Take a look:
It is as essential to the successful working of this government that the great organisms of its executive and legislative branches should be the free choice of the people as that the original form of it should be so. In absolute governments, where the monarch is the source of all power, it is still held to be important that the exercise of that power shall be free from the influence of extraneous violence and internal corruption.
In a republican government, like ours, where political power is reposed in representatives of the entire body of the people, chosen at short intervals by popular elections, the temptations to control these elections by violence and by corruption is a constant source of danger.
Such has been the history of all republics, and, though ours 667 has been comparatively free from both these evils in the past, no lover of his country can shut his eyes to the fear of future danger from both sources.
If the recurrence of such acts as these prisoners stand convicted of are too common in one quarter of the country, and give omen of danger from lawless violence, the free use of money in elections, arising from the vast growth of recent wealth in other quarters, presents equal cause for anxiety.
If the government of the United States has within its constitutional domain no authority to provide against these evils, if the very source of power may be poisoned by corruption or controlled by violence and outrage, without legal restraint, then, indeed, is the country in danger, and its best powers, its highest purposes, the hopes which it inspires, and the love which enshrines it, are at the mercy of the combinations of those who respect no right but brute force, on the one hand, and unprincipled corruptionists on the other. [emphasis added]
Yes, that's right. That's a conservative Supreme Court of the United States (in the bolded paragraph above) comparing the negative effects of unlimited political expenditures to those of mob violence against those seeking to exercise their right to vote, and scoffing at the notion that the federal government lacks the power to deal with either.
That a government whose essential character is republican, whose executive head and legislative body are both elective, whose most numerous and powerful branch of the legislature is elected by the people directly, has no power by appropriate laws to secure this election from the influence of violence, of corruption, and of fraud, is a proposition so startling as to arrest attention and demand the gravest consideration.
If this government is anything more than a mere aggregation of delegated agents of other States and governments, each of which is superior to the general government, it must have the power to protect the elections on which its existence depends from violence and corruption.
I have a feeling that the current Supreme Court's decision inCitizens United, in which the court is expected by many (as early as tomorrow) to throw out restrictions on unlimited campaign expenditures by corporations, isn't going to sound a whole lot like the opinion quoted from above.
But it's nevertheless worth pointing out that a conservative Supreme Court entirely made up of Republican nominees -- nominees who would show strong preference for corporations in other rulings, striking down wage and labor laws as violative of the freedom to contract and limiting the scope of other laws in areas such as anti-trust -- found unlimited campaign expenditures to be highly worrisome, and what's more found that the federal government does possess the power to combat such "evils."