John Roberts

This Jan. 25, 2012 file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington. The justices are unlikely to have the last word on America's tangled efforts to address health care woes. The problems of high medical costs, widespread waste, and tens of millions of people without insurance will require Congress and the president to keep looking for answers.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Nearly two weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in a closely divided case — McCutcheon v. FEC — that political donors have the right to give a certain amount of money to as many candidates as they like. Previously, federal law had prevented a donor from providing the maximum donation ($2,600 for a candidate, $5,000 to a political action committee and $32,400 to a political party) to more than roughly 19 candidates or 15 PACs. Now, those donors can give those aforementioned individual limits to as many candidates, committees and interest groups as they wish.

The 5-4 decision rested upon the assertion that, under the First Amendment, money is tantamount to speech. Using that assumption, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that, despite its unpopularity, the right to give money to as many politicians as you choose is fundamentally constitutional. Of course, spending money should not be a universal right like worship or speech because not everyone has the pocketbook needed.

“Money in politics may, at times, seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts wrote in a decision joined by the four other justices nominated by Republican presidents. “If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

The folly in this reasoning, I believe, does not lie with any unpopularity affiliated with the intersection of politics and money. Rather, it rests upon the harmful assumption that spending one’s money is not legally discernible from speaking one’s mind. Strictly speaking, the Supreme Court has believed, to some extent, that the two are intertwined ever since the first case over campaign finance reform, Buckley v. Valeo, way back in 1976.

However, in the four years since the Citizens United v. FEC case, which first opened the floodgates of attacks against campaign finance by giving corporations and trade unions the unmitigated right to create independent campaign expenditures (a right only the former has extensively taken advantage of), the idea of money being speech has been indelibly imprinted in the American political landscape as it has taken on a whole new meaning.

“[The court’s] conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, who penned a dissent joined by the three other nominee of Democratic Presidents on the court. “Its legal analysis is faulty.”

Breyer added, “If Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision, we fear, will open a floodgate.” Indeed, the fear over excessive money and corruption —inextricably mixed as they are — in the political process is what prompted a need for these regulations in the first place. In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Congress first limited donations in an effort to combat the impropriety they saw in the previous few elections.

The law is supposed to be based on precedent, so, when the court overrules a position it took just 35 years in the past, the assumption is that it is based on a higher moral concept or understanding, such as the spirit of equal protection heralding the Brown v. Board of Education decision that overruled previous cases. 

In this case, the supposedly higher concept is that speech is money and vice-versa. And, just as our freedom of speech is, with very few exceptions, absolute, the court decided so should be our freedom to donate politically. Of course, while all citizens are ostensibly affected by free speech rights, the same cannot be said here. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans earn enough money to be affected by any type of aggregate contribution limits. Simply put, both a pauper and an heiress would be affected by the right to burn a draft card or give a speech on a soapbox, but only one could ever be affected by limits on political donations. Everyone has a voice, but only some have money.

The court’s conservative majority has even admitted that unrestrained campaign finance laws are not an ideal situation; Roberts did this much when he compared this quandary to those of white supremacists and the Westboro Baptist Church. The issue here revolves around the belief that money is speech. If that means only the rich are entitled to a functional right to free speech, I am not looking forward to the results. 

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston.

A new Supreme Court decision that overturned restrictions on campaign contribution limits could increase wealthy donors’ abilities to influence elections, according to law professor Lucas Powe.

In a 5-4 decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that federal limits on the number of candidates and political committees a person could donate to in an election cycle were in violation of rights protected by the First Amendment. In the case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled that current aggregate limits, or the amount of money an individual can give to committees and candidates in a two-year period, also posed an unconstitutional burden. 

“The basic idea is that Congress can’t regulate the total amount a person can give to lots of different candidates,” law assistant professor Joseph Fishkin said.

Powe said while the ruling might lead to more transparency in the political system, it could also give wealthy, upper-class donors more ability to influence candidates.

“We might see a little more transparency because contributions to a candidate have to be reported, so contributions to super PACs might be more transparent,” Powe said. “We’ll also probably see much more big money because it gives the wealthy more control of the system. The Republicans are probably dancing in the streets right now.”

The decision still limits the total amount of money a donor can give to any one candidate to $2,600.

“A donor can now give a maximum contribution of $2,600 to as many individuals as he wishes,” Powe said. “So with 33 Senate races and 435 House races, he can now give $2,600 to each and every candidate in that race.” 

Under the previous laws, donors could only give to 18 candidates per election cycle, for a total donation limit of $123,200. 

In his decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said he had no problem removing some donation limits because he felt most campaign contributions were not made to unfairly influence candidates.

“Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the decision was based on the fact that aggregate limits infringed on donors’ First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

“The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Roberts said.

Powe said he was concerned about how the new ruling might affect other campaign finance laws. 

“[The Supreme Court] didn’t strike down all campaign finance legislation, but they’re certainly poised to do so,” Powe said. “This is just the beginning. It has the seeds of knocking everything else out.”

The ruling will formally go into effect in 25 days.

This Jan. 25, 2012 file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington. The justices are unlikely to have the last word on America's tangled efforts to address health care woes. The problems of high medical costs, widespread waste, and tens of millions of people without insurance will require Congress and the president to keep looking for answers.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the individual insurance requirement at the heart of President Barack Obama's historic health care overhaul.

The decision means the huge overhaul, still only partly in effect, will proceed and pick up momentum over the next several years, affecting the way that countless Americans receive and pay for their personal medical care. The ruling also hands Obama a campaign-season victory in rejecting arguments that Congress went too far in requiring most Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty.

Breaking with the court's other conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts announced the judgment that allows the law to go forward with its aim of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans.

The justices rejected two of the administration's three arguments in support of the insurance requirement. But the court said the mandate can be construed as a tax. "Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness," Roberts said.

The court found problems with the law's expansion of Medicaid, but even there said the expansion could proceed as long as the federal government does not threaten to withhold states' entire Medicaid allotment if they don't take part in the law's extension.

The court's four liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, joined Roberts in the outcome.

Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

"The act before us here exceeds federal power both in mandating the purchase of health insurance and in denying non-consenting states all Medicaid funding," the dissenters said in a joint statement.

Republican campaign strategists said presidential candidate Mitt Romney will use the court's ruling to continue campaigning against "Obamacare" and attacking the president's signature health care program as a tax increase.

"Obama might have his law, but the GOP has a cause," said veteran campaign adviser Terry Holt. "This promises to galvanize Republican support around a repeal of what could well be called the largest tax increase in American history."