Opinion

One dollar, one vote

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Photo by Adrienne R. Watson

“Impeach Earl Warren!” was written in large block letters across the billboard. Seen from the back seat of our family station wagon, an off-white Rambler American, I remember asking who Earl Warren was and being told he was the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Back in the early 1960s such signs were common in the rural South.

President Dwight Eisenhower ap­­pointed Warren, a former Republican governor of California, to the Supreme Court  in 1953.  The Warren Court, as it later became known, presided over several landmark cases ultimately reshaping the social landscape of the U.S.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned racial segregation in public schools.  Engel v. Vitale (1962) held that public school-sponsored prayer violated the separation of church and state.  Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) established publically funded legal counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases.

Reynolds v. Sims (1964) established the principle of “one man, one vote,” still used today in legislative redistricting.  Miranda v. Arizona (1966) held that persons in police custody must have their rights clearly explained, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.

Brown v. Board of Education as heard before the U.S. Supreme Court combined five cases, including Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County originally filed in Virginia and argued by Oliver Hill of Richmond. 

Furthermore, the decisions of the Warren Court are said to have fueled the early activism of Lynchburg preacher and televangelist Jerry Falwell, who would later found a political organization called the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.

Perhaps to some these decisions remain controversial today, and one can only imagine how they boiled in the cauldron of civil unrest in the 1960s.

Warren was never impeached and remained on the court until his retirement in the spring of 1969 at age 78.  In the ensuing years, appointments to the Supreme Court have often been contentious. Our contemporary understanding of politics is shaped by the legacy of the Warren Court, a time when conservative values clashed with liberal ones and ideological divisions among the justices were a deciding factor in many rulings.

It is unfortunate and perhaps politically naïve to think that because Supreme Court justices are appointed for life they will rise above partisan divisions and ideological differences.  But then again, after more than 200 years, the intent of the framers of our Constitution does require occasional interpretation.

Today’s court is much different from the Warren Court.  The political pendulum has swung to the right; the Roberts Court is more conservative, at best evenly divided.

Much like the Warren Court had an impact on social issues, the Roberts Court is reshaping our electoral landscape.  Two decisions, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014) have rolled back much of what Congress had previously done to restrict, limit or reform the influence of money in politics.

The Citizens United case struck down portions of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, specifically those that prohibited independent political expenditures by corporations, nonprofits and labor unions.  This change has engendered the rise of so-called super PACs.  Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC and nonprofit Crossroads GPS, spent over $300 million in the 2012 election cycle, a princely sum greater than the entire amount spent by the Republican National Committee.

Last month, the McCutcheon decision upheld the $2,600 limit on contributions by donors to individual candidates but entirely eliminated the aggregate cap of $74,600 that an individual was permitted to donate to candidate committees, PACs and political parties during a two-year election cycle, meaning that there is virtually no limit on the flow of money into politics.

Central to these two decisions by the Roberts Court is the concept that political contributions are a form of “political speech” protected by the First Amendment. The court has opined that the only reason for intervention in political donations is to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption.  Furthermore, in McCutcheon, corruption is narrowly defined as only quid pro quo  (something for something) and does not include efforts to obtain access to elected officials or influence over parties.

These hard decisions reflect the court’s thinking that limits on political spending are an attempt by the legislative branch to level the economic playing field of politics, something not envisioned by our founding fathers for whom social and economic status were both important qualifiers for leadership.

The judicial branch rarely wins a popularity contest.  Despite enjoying support from a public weary of seeing so much money flowing into elections, campaign finance restrictions largely are unconstitutional, the court has found.  If a significant legacy of the Warren Court was “one person, one vote,” perhaps for the Roberts Court it will be “one dollar, one vote.”


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