Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The Supreme Court’s Decisions Regarding Campaign Finance, Voting Rights, and Democracy

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court once again chose to dismantle campaign finance laws which had protected hardworking Americans for decades.  In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a sharply divided Court held that aggregate limits on campaign contributions are a violation of the First Amendment.  These were the same five justices who, just four years ago, reversed a century of precedent in Citizens United by declaring that corporations have a First Amendment right to endlessly finance and influence elections. Rather than increasing access and encouraging participation for all Americans, this Court continues to rule against our democratic principles and in favor of moneyed interests. 

The Court’s recent dismantling of campaign finance laws has been devastating.  As Justice Breyer warned in his dissent, “Taken together with Citizens United, [the McCutcheon] decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”  I could not agree with him more.

Nobody who has watched our elections or even tried to watch television since the Citizens United decision can deny the enormous impact that decision has had on our political process.  In small states like Vermont, that decision coupled with McCutcheon poses an even greater risk.  I have heard time and again from Vermonters concerned about these toxic effects, and I agree that something must be done.  That is why I have cosponsored the DISCLOSE Act since 2010 to restore transparency and accountability to campaign finance laws, and that is why we have held multiple hearings in the Judiciary Committee on the impact of these alarming Supreme Court decisions.  Earlier this month I announced that the Judiciary Committee would have another hearing on this issue.  That hearing will take place in June.  We will hear testimony from individuals who have witnessed the real impact these harmful decisions have had on Americans seeking to exercise their right to vote and to be heard.

The Judiciary Committee’s hearing will also take place close to the anniversary of yet another devastating Supreme Court decision.  Last June, as the Nation prepared to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, the same narrow majority of the Supreme Court struck down the coverage provision of the Voting Rights Act and effectively gutted the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in this Nation’s history in Shelby County v. Holder

The Voting Rights Act, including the coverage formula and Section 5, was reauthorized and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, after the Senate voted 98-0 and the House voted 390-33 in favor of the reauthorization.  Yet, the Court struck down a key provision of the Act despite the fact that it has worked to protect the Constitution’s guarantees against racial discrimination in voting for nearly five decades.  In striking down the coverage formula in the Voting Rights Act, the Court dramatically undercut Section 5’s ability to protect American voters from racial discrimination in voting.  The result is that many Americans who were protected by this law have now been left vulnerable to discriminatory practices and have had much greater difficulty accessing the ballot box.  Along with other lawmakers, I have introduced a bipartisan and bicameral bill, S. 1945, to respond to the Court’s decision and would reinvigorate the most vital protections of the Act.  I hope Senate Republicans will work with me on this important effort.

This current Supreme Court’s pattern of denying access to the ballot box for everyday Americans while expanding the ability of billionaires and corporations to buy elections is disturbing, to say the least.  In an article by Ari Berman at The Nation dated April 2, the author states that “The Court’s conservative majority believes that the First Amendment gives wealthy donors and powerful corporations the carte blanche to buy an election but that the Fifteenth Amendment does not give Americans the right to vote free of racial discrimination.”  Since the Court’s ruling in Shelby County, eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have since passed or implemented new voting restrictions and voters are already seeing the consequences of that lack of protection.  Mr. Berman concludes that “[a] country that expands the rights of the powerful to dominate the political process but does not protect fundament rights for all citizens doesn’t sound much like a functioning democracy to me.”  I agree and I ask unanimous consent to include this article in the Record at the end conclusion of my remarks.

Sara Mayeux at Harvard Law School observed that the Court began its McCutcheon opinion by noting that “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders” yet, this same narrow majority discarded that very principle just last year when it struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County – a case that was much more about the right to participate in electing our political leaders than this one.

The observation is consistent with the disturbing trend exhibited by this Court in Citizens United, McCutcheon, and Shelby County – which is that the Court underscores and endorses the rights of corporations and billionaires to participate in our democracy, and yet, dismisses that same right for the average American to participate in our elections and to vote free from discrimination.

Every American should understand how devastating these rulings are to our system of democracy.  Time and again, this narrow majority of conservative Justices has substituted their own preferences for those of the duly-elected Congress, despite the Supreme Court’s own precedents.  This Court’s disregard for Congressional findings about both the threat of corruption and the irreparable harm of racial discrimination in voting demonstrates how out of touch with reality some of the Justices have become.  These sharply-divided rulings undermine the fundamental concept that our democracy is supposed to work for all Americans.  I will continue to work on behalf of the American people to see that all Americans – and not just a wealthy few –will continue to have a right to participate in our representative democracy and to have their voices heard.

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