In his 1931 autobiography, San Francisco native and Calbuzz hero Lincoln Steffens recalled visiting many years earlier with Israel W. Durham, the boss of Philadelphia, who was near the end of his days:
“When I said that one business man’s bribe was nothing but a crime, but a succession of business briberies over the years was a corruption of government to make it represent business, he said thoughtfully, ‘Then contributions to campaign funds are more regular and, therefore, worse than bribes!’”
The story came to mind the other evening when Calbuzz listened to the unctuous Kenneth Starr – former President Bill Clinton’s Grand Inquisitor and infamous anti-gay marriage proponent — expound upon the virtues of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission as an historic affirmation of the First Amendment.
Needless to say, the other panelist, former US Sen. Russ Feingold, co-author of the famous McCain-Feingold law limiting federal campaign contributions, was far less enamored of Starr’s defense of freedom of speech for corporations, but rather described the decision as upholding the right of corporations to make “unlimited secret contributions.”
The occasion was a discussion titled “The Future of Political Reform” at Stanford, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of California’s Political Reform Act, organized by FPPC Chairwoman Ann Ravel and sponsored by the Stanford Law School and the Bill Lane Center for the American West.
Glimpse behind-the-scenes: We went to the event hoping to hear some discussion of the future of political reform – a subject in which Calbuzz has a direct interest since some of the issues involve how campaign spending is done on the internet. And we were delighted to be included in the very small private reception before the panel, that included (among others) Starr and Feingold, moderator and political law scholar Pamela Karlan of Stanford, Bill Lane Center director Bruce Cain, campaign law aces Robin Johansen and Chuck Bell, Judge Miguel Marquez, Palo Alto City Councilwoman Liz Kniss and always-around-the-ball consultant Jude Barry. Just lemonade to drink, but the marinated shrimp were especially tasty.
Unfortunately, once the panel got cranked up, there was very little discussion of the future of political reform. As our old friend Bruce Cain said at the start, perhaps the event should have been titled “Does Political Reform Have a Future?” It would have been informative, for example, to hear more about the steps California, New York, Alaska and Maine have begun taking to force tax-exempt advocacy organizations and trade associations to fully disclose contributions and spending, as the LA Times has reported.
Rather, the discussion centered on the giant boulder in the road to political reform – Citizens United, the right-wing ramrod masquerading as a non-profit, founded in 1988 with major funding from Charles and Bill Koch, the Rosenkranz and Guildenstern of plutocratic politics.
Feingold basically argued that political reform was working well until John Roberts and four other members of the Supreme Court decided to take a case that could easily have been dismissed or overruled on narrow grounds and used it to engineer a right-wing brake on democratic reforms that were working to limit secret corporate influence on American politics.
What’s wrong with Citizens United: Feingold, who lost his Senate seat from Wisconsin in 2010 after serving three terms, is a lecturer at Stanford Law School and founder of Progressives United whose mission is: “To stand up to the exploding corporate influence in our political system by organizing and amplifying the voices of those who believe that corporations have too much power, and by promoting solutions that ensure individual rights and democratic principles are upheld to the highest standards, even in the face of the lawless Citizens United Supreme Court decision.”
His agenda is simple: He’s an unreconstructed liberal from the progressive Wisconsin tradition, dedicated to grass-roots democracy. (Too bad he voted to confirm Roberts – his classmate at Harvard Law School – to the Supreme Court.) If he could wave a magic wand, he’d enact voluntary public financing for all federal campaigns with agreed-upon limits on spending.
Kenneth Starr, now president of Baylor University, would eliminate all campaign contribution and spending limitations. That’s what he calls a “system of free expression.” (See Steffens above)
But Starr’s role in American politics and jurisprudence reaches far beyond Citizen’s United. While Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, it was Starr’s former political deputy – Roberts — who engineered argument on the case and placed it onto the court’s front burner.
As David Savage expertly explained in the Los Angeles Times, when Starr, then Solicitor General, hired Roberts to work for him back in 1989:
Together, Starr and Roberts pressed a strongly conservative legal agenda for 3 1/2 years.
They argued for limiting the scope of civil rights laws, ending race-based affirmative action, restoring some prayers to public schools and overruling Roe vs. Wade, the case that established a woman’s right to abortion.
They sought to make it harder for environmentalists to challenge the government in court. They intervened on the side of Operation Rescue to shield abortion protesters from being sued. And they joined Texas state lawyers in arguing that new evidence of a death row inmate’s “actual innocence” did not entitle him to reopen his case in federal court.
In the first right-to-die case to reach the Supreme Court, they intervened on the side of then-Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft to argue that state officials may keep a comatose woman alive over the objections of her family.
And as Irregular Times noted, Roberts and Starr were as thick as thieves:
The Federalist Society, to which John Roberts belonged and served in high roles such as member of the Washington D.C. steering committee, provided strong legal resources to the effort to impeach Bill Clinton for getting a blow job. At the time, the Federalist Society coordinated efforts with the most extreme right wing political organizations known in America. Ken Starr himself was also a member of the Federalist Society right along with John Roberts, and received assistance from the far right legal club just as John Roberts did.
Dont’ forget the stained blue dress: And who can forget Starr’s loathsome role in arguing at the California Supreme Court where he sought to save California’s unconstitutional ban on gay marriage?
That any right may be taken away from any group by a mere amendment passed by a bare majority of voters, with no filter of legislative deliberation required, as would be the case for a proposed constitutional revision.
This is just a sprinkling from Starr’s career as an avatar of right-wing ideology and judicial influence – his arguments inevitably set forth with the most genteel and reasonable-sounding delivery one could imagine. Such a lovely man with such a horrific agenda.
He wraps his antediluvian arguments in the sweetest of constitutional principles – standing forthright and shoulder-to-shoulder with the patriots as he argues that more speech is always better than less speech – unless he’s fighting for a school principal’s right to tear down a kid’s banner shouting “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” as he did in Morse v Frederick.
As for the future of political reform, obviously at the federal level something must be done to mitigate the effects of Citizens United. Since Starr proclaims himself all for disclosure, a good place to start would be for him to support a proposal – that Feingold heartily endorses – for the Securities and Exchange Commission to require disclosure of any and all political contributions made by any corporate entity. (After the panel, when we suggested to Feingold that he should recruit Starr to support this idea, he replied, “He’d have to be for it. I wish I’d thought of that.”)
The Steffens-Calbuzz alliance: Here in California, Calbuzz has laid out an approach for handling campaign communications made over the internet. As we have said on more than one occasion, when voters increasingly get their political information from online sources, they need to know if what they’re reading is bought and paid for.
This can all be done by regulating and requiring disclosure of campaigns and independent spenders without trampling the First Amendment rights of conveyors of news and analysis in print, over the airwaves or (ahem) online.
Ravel wants to preserve and expand California’s commitment to confronting actual and apparent corruption in politics. Eliminating anonymity entirely with explicit disclosures in greater detail and at more frequent intervals would help.
Just don’t let Ken Starr anywhere near the process.