ADVERTISEMENT

The Supreme Court may be on the verge of completing the damage it caused three years ago in its Citizens United ruling. When the court convenes for its new term next month, it will take up a case that could remove the limits that the wealthy can give directly to all candidates and political parties.

For years, this has been the direction of the Supreme Court, which has bought into the odd notion that money is speech, and therefore cannot be constitutionally impaired. But money isn’t speech, it’s money. Speech is speech, and it is protected (and even then, with limits).

If anything, money acts as a megaphone. It amplifies speech, allowing it to be heard by more people, but the Constitution provides no guarantee of being heard, only of speaking freely. Nevertheless, the court has struck down limits on corporate and union giving and may now be poised to give the wealthiest Americans greater ability to influence elections and, with that, policy.

The issue is whether federal limits on how much a donor can give to all candidates for Congress or party committees in any given election cycle violate the right of free speech. To be clear, they don’t, but the court has been confused on this issue.

This should be a political question, not a constitutional one. These laws sprang out of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, and their need was plain. As a pragmatic matter, they force politicians to seek funding beyond the monied interests that seek to bend legislation in their favor.

The current question is not how much an individual can give to a single candidate or committee, but how many of them he can support with donations. Those who want to overturn the law argue – unpersuasively – that the change will benefit neither party, since there are as many rich liberals as there are rich conservatives.

Even still, that can change, and it’s not the reason to hold onto these limits, in any case. The issue is whether Americans who are less well off will be boxed out of any ability to influence elections, or if inordinate, corruptible power will be vested in the hands of those with money to spare.

It looks like another close vote, with the majority of justices nominated by Republican presidents leaning toward abolishing those limits. Yet at least one observer believes that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. may join with the more liberal justices to support the current structure. Roberts “is likely to be the key vote in deciding this case,” said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime supporter of campaign funding laws, “and he has a different record on campaign finance issues than his conservative colleagues.”

That certainly was the case when the court voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act, with Roberts siding with those affirming the law.

It’s shaping up to be another eventful year for the Supreme Court. The question in this case is whether it will also be destructive.