John Roberts Has Shanghaied Our Democracy

President Barack Obama greets Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts before he delivers the State of the Union Address at the U.S. Capitol in 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama greets Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts before he delivers the State of the Union Address at the U.S. Capitol in 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Ever since the John Roberts Supreme Court issued its 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United case, a tidal wave of billions of dollars has poured into presidential campaigns and is beginning to flood into elections for Senate and Congress.

Roberts’ role was detailed by Jeffrey Toobin, in a story in The New Yorker that revealed how the chief justice broadened the scope of the 2010 Citizens case. It began when a federal agency said a commercial organization could not run a cable TV “documentary” attacking Hillary Clinton right before an election.

The Roberts Court, aided by ineptitude by the government’s lawyer, converted it into an issue involving freedom of speech. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law stood in Roberts’ way and had to be dodged, which Roberts & Co. did.

“Through artful questioning, [Justices] Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts had turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship,” Toobin said. When the Roberts Court was done, with an assist from a lower federal court that relied on the Citizens finding, they had paved the way for unlimited giving by corporations and extremely wealthy individuals.

Roberts and his right-sided colleagues had created and unleashed a whole new, powerful, wealthy and unaccountable force in American politics, the super PAC.

After Newt Gingrich trounced Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary, Romney’s super PAC swung into action. A media monitoring service found “a whopping 99 percent of the 3,276 ads paid for by the Romney campaign were deemed negative, while 100 percent of the 4,969 spots sponsored by the pro-Romney Restore Our Future PAC were considered negative.” Gingrich was never a serious threat again.

Nevertheless, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and his wife, through their super PAC, gave Gingrich $20 million and pretty much single-handedly kept Newt’s political heart beating well past its expiration date.

Last week Forbes magazine reported, “Adelson just donated $10 million to Mitt Romney’s super PAC, and told Forbes he is willing to spend $100 million or more to ensure President Obama is not re-elected.”

That’s $100 million to defeat the president of the United States. Prior to Citizens, such an act was illegal and unthinkable.

Lately, two of Karl Rove-run groups have begun attacking Democrats in key Senate races. Rove, known as “George W. Bush’s brain,” launched TV attack ads worth $6 million into seven states to defeat Democrats. He’s just getting started. His groups aren’t technically super PACs. They are tax-exempt “social welfare” groups, such as the Rotary Club, which aren’t required to divulge their benefactors.

Super PACs are overwhelmingly Republican. Romney's Restore Our Future PAC has raised $57 million, more than six times as much as Obama’s Priorities USA. There’s more where that came from. Rolling Stone found the median income of donors to Romney’s super PAC is $1 billion.


Since Citizens, we have seen a handful of billionaires trying to buy control of our federal government. This shift of power to the monied few was made possible by what used to be the one branch of government that stood for justice for all.

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was on the losing side of the Citizens decision, said recently that he expects the court has already had second thoughts about parts of its ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate spending in political campaigns.

But since the court doesn’t meet again to take up new cases until October, it’s unlikely to change what it has created in time for this year’s elections.

This program aired on June 18, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Dan Payne

Dan Payne Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live