Campaign Finance Reformers Didn’t Win Anything in Roberts Ruling on Contributions to Judges

With all the hoopla from such good government organizations like Common Cause, you’d think campaign finance reform, in the eyes of the court, was turning in a positive direction.

The ruling, in a nutshell, said that judges cannot solicit donations directly in Florida because that state has a compelling interest in its campaign finance laws to limit corruption and maintain the public’s confidence in the judicial process that is compromised of judges asking for money for their campaigns.

So here’s the problem when you wait to think about the consequences of that decision for a few minutes.

Do elected judges need to campaign? Yes.

So will they need money to campaign? Yes.

So who, in the world of elections … even in nonpartisan races … will have the most power to influence judicial elections when judges don’t have the ability to raise the money themselves?

Political parties and special interests. Because those organizations, apparently, are immune to quid pro quo temptations.

The ruling of the Supreme Court did nothing more than continue the trend that started over 50 years ago when the court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that individual contribution limits were OK, but that limitations on indirect expenditures through third parties is not.

When individual candidates, whether judges or representatives, can’t raise money to run an election themselves, they must rely on third parties to raise and spend for them. The natural consequence of this is that candidates are no longer accountable for the things they say (hence the rise in negative campaigns), they are not in control of their fundraising destiny (hence the decline in candidates willing to take on their own party and special interest groups), and voters are left with a system that incentives the very “state interest” that Florida sought to protect: preventing the conditions for a quid pro quo.

Money will always find politics. The question we should be asking before we jump up and down is whether its better to have individuals give directly to candidates to promote accountability, or to divert donations through third parties which forces candidates to rely on third parties, and in effect, allows them both to skirt direct accountability for the election that is ran and the job that is performed at the end of the day.

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