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editorial

Retired justice speaks up: Stinging dissent on political cash

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

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Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

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Even in his retirement, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens can still issue a weighty dissent. On Wednesday, Stevens, 94, inveighed mightily against high court rulings that invalidated limits on campaign contributions. In his first testimony before a Senate panel since his 1975 confirmation, Stevens called for a constitutional amendment to allow Congress and state legislatures to set “reasonable limits” on campaign spending. Such an amendment, currently being pushed primarily by Democrats, would in effect overturn the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which opened the door to unfettered campaign cash.

Stevens, a bitter dissenter in Citizens United, said that decision and others in the same vein ran counter to the concept of a level playing field for voters and “create a risk that successful candidates will pay more attention to the interests of non-voters who provided them with money.” A new report bears Stevens out. The Wesleyan Media Project and the Center for Responsive Politics found that a majority of television advertisements in current US Senate campaigns are sponsored by outside interest groups, and most of them are paid for with “dark money” requiring no donor disclosure. Overall ad spending is already at $43 million, a 45 percent increase from this point in the 2012 election cycle.

Stevens forcefully refuted the legal assumptions behind the Citizens United decision — that campaign spending is nothing more than a form of speech, and that the free-expression rights of corporations deserve the exact same protection as those of individual human persons. A constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate and approval by three-fourths of the states, would be a daunting battle — and could present unanticipated legal consequences of its own. Nonetheless, Stevens deserves praise for reminding the Senate, and the American public, of the radical consequences of the Supreme Court’s current path.

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