Today’s ruling by a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court chipped away at both the letter and spirit of the McCain-Feingold law and favored the corrupt status quo in national politics. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Statement on
U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Wisconsin Right to Life Lawsuit
Against Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

June 25, 2007

Madison - Today’s ruling by a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court chipped away at both the letter and spirit of the McCain-Feingold law and favored the corrupt status quo in national politics.

The court’s narrow majority has begun unraveling McCain-Feingold and has reopened the door to the dishonest sleight of hand special interests engage in to evade disclosure requirements and limitations on campaign contributions. Today’s decision is a step back toward the time before the enactment of McCain-Feingold when special interests were deemed free to keep the public in the dark about who is paying for their federal electioneering in order to sidestep the national ban on corporate and labor union treasury donations.

For all the talk of free speech in the majority’s decision, this legal challenge to McCain-Feingold wasn’t about the speech of citizens. It was about corporate speech. In their zeal to promote corporate speech, members of the court’s ruling majority overlooked the fact that McCain-Feingold law didn’t prevent interest groups from sponsoring ads during election seasons. It only said that they can’t pay for them in the way they prefer – with corporate treasury funds. The law also said ad sponsors must fully disclose their activity to the public. The court’s majority ignored the public’s right to know and ruled in favor of secrecy.

Today’s ruling wounds McCain-Feingold but does not kill it. But while the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act lives on, the signals sent by the court today are nevertheless troubling. In today’s ruling, the court stood for corporate ownership of our democracy. Today’s decision unmistakably gives comfort to those who advance the repugnant notions that money is speech and secrecy is freedom.

While these signals are cause for grave concern, it bears remembering that the U.S. Supreme Court once embraced the vile notion that people can be property in the infamous 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford. That set the stage for the Civil War which commenced less than four years later, and the adoption of the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 and 1868. These amendments overturned Dred Scott,ended slavery and clearly established the citizenship of all persons regardless of race, creed or previous condition of servitude.

Right around that time, in a letter to Colonel William Elkins on November 21, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Lincoln’s fears were confirmed posthumously. Twenty years after the Dred Scott ruling and its underlying premise that people can be property were swept away, the Supreme Court advanced the similarly ridiculous proposition that property can be a person in the infamous Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company case . That 1886 court action set the stage for citizen revolts like those led by Fighting Bob La Follette in Wisconsin that ultimately resulted in the banning of corporate and union treasury donations nationally and here in our state.

The Supreme Court which plagues us for the time being decided today that the loophole that has devoured La Follette’s great reform should remain at least partially open. While this is without question a setback for democracy, it is but a temporary one. One day, history will note that the philosophy underpinning today’s ruling went the way of Dred Scott.