Jenkins: Left desperate to overturn Citizens United turns to Alaska

By Paul Jenkins |

Oh, swell: Yet another do-gooder Outside political group has decided to use Alaska to push its aims.

This time around, it is Washington-D.C.-based “Equal Citizens” and it wants the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision striking down limits on corporations’ campaign expenditures. The court ruling, correctly, protected those political contributions as free speech.

The court, in its 5-4 decision, sided with a conservative nonprofit group, Citizens United, that in 2008 wanted to air “Hillary: The Movie,” a political documentary critical of Hillary Clinton — despite restrictions in 2002’s onerous Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or McCain-Feingold Act.

The decision spawned stand-alone super PACs, which can raise unlimited cash from corporations, unions and individuals, but are barred from contributing to or coordinating directly with parties or candidates.
Super PACs are anathema to the left, with its penchant to control the conversation and squelch dissent, and the ruling triggered dire warnings of what was to come. The New York Times opined it would “thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century” by allowing “corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections.”

An almost palpable yearning to overturn Citizens United permeates the political left. Salvation? Redemption? Revenge?

“If we win at the U.S. Supreme Court, starting with this Alaska case, we change everything,” Equal Citizens founder Lawrence Lessig said in a news release.

Lessig, who eventually wants to do away with the Electoral College, formed a crowd-funded super PAC, the Mayday America PAC, to underwrite “political revolutionaries” who will work to wipe out super PACs and “save our democracy” from the “big money political machine.”

Lessig is a hard-core leftist, but no dummy. He is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School and a political activist. He briefly ran in the 2016 presidential election, but claimed Democratic Party bosses derailed his campaign.

Equal Citizens’ lawyers turned up three Alaskans to complain to the Alaska Public Offices Commission about two Alaska super PACS — Interior Voters for John Coghill and Working Families of Alaska — in the 2016 election.

The gambit? Alaska law limits contributions to independent political groups, but goes unenforced because of Citizens United. Equal Citizens’ lawyers say they are using a unique “citizen-suit provision” in state law that allows any resident “to force election administrators to enforce election law.”

APOC staff on Feb. 5 rejected the complaints, and complainants have 30 days to appeal to the full commission. If the full panel were to reject the complaints, that decision could be appealed to Superior Court, beginning a possible run to the nation’s high court.

You have to marvel at the level of windmill-tilting in all this. The notion that Citizens United somehow is undermining American politics is nonsense, a far cry from The New York Times’ “robber baron” era.

Floyd Abrams, who represented Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Citizens United case, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year there have been two presidential and four congressional elections since Citizens United, and “it turns out the apocalyptic forecasts were not just inaccurate but utterly insupportable.”

Super PACs of all stripes raised $1.8 billion between Jan. 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2016, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics, Abrams wrote. “Of that, $1.04 billion came from individual donors and $242 million from unions, trade associations, politically active nonprofits and other organizations,” he said. “Only $85 million was contributed by business corporations.”

All the howls from the left about Citizens United, it turns out, amount to much ado about not much.

Joel M. Gora is a law professor, campaign finance law expert, and long-time lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. He told The New York Times that Citizens United checked the chilling effect on free speech caused by “our incredibly complex system of campaign finance rules and regulations — about who can speak and what can be said and when it can be said — presided over by the government bureaucrats.”

It is difficult to assess how Equal Citizens’ case will fare in Alaska, or beyond. Perhaps an enterprising lawmaker will move to repeal Alaska’s unenforced, contribution-restricting law and save the group, and the state, time and money. But that would not be the end of it for the left or for Lessig & Co. in their quixotic quest to save us from the Constitution’s protections.

John O. McGinnis, the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University School of Law, hit the nail on the head a few years back.

“The First Amendment guarantees freedom, not equality. Rights are exercised to radically unequal degrees, and the right to speech is no exception.”

Amen.

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