Commentary Magazine


Topic: campaign-finance laws

Free Speech Can’t Be Redistributed

In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

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In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

As Politico noted yesterday, the main beneficiaries of a victory for McCutcheon would be both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Since the law specifically restricts the ability of donors to contribute to these national political institutions, money instead flows to unaccountable independents like those protected by Citizens United. There is nothing wrong with independent groups having their say, and the McCain-Feingold effort to stop them was an offense to democracy and, as the court rightly noted, an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. But if those interested in politics are able to give more to the national party committees and the candidates themselves, the result will be that the players in elections can have a greater say in campaigns and therefore be more accountable for what is said on their behalf.

Stopping wealthy individuals from giving more to parties and candidates won’t keep money out of politics. Nothing will do that, especially when you consider that the real corruption in government comes from the ability of politicians to use earmarks and other legislative tricks to dole out goodies to their allies or favored constituencies. The smart way to attack that problem is not by starving non-incumbents who have more problems raising funds than incumbents or making it difficult for others to donate to multiple candidates. Limiting the ability of Congress to play that game with earmarks and other legislative tricks will do more to keep the system honest than 40 years of campaign finance laws have done.

But at the heart of this case is the fundamental drive on the part of the political left to treat political speech as a commodity that can be regulated like interstate commerce. They don’t trust the ability of the people to sort out the varied political messages with which they are bombarded. Instead, they want to dole out political speech in small packages. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench on Tuesday that limits on contributions give the “little people” more say. But what she really wants to do is limit everyone’s speech. The Constitution protects the right of all citizens, rich or poor, to speech. The law cannot favor some at the expense of others. Income may be redistributed via the tax laws if the Congress wills it, but free speech cannot be handled in the same manner. That is especially true when one considers that a citizen who spends money on an independent committee has no such restrictions but that one who gives to a candidate or a party is severely limited. Elections are influenced by campaign expenditures just as they are by many factors, but the notion that an office can be bought is given the lie by the failure of many well-funded or wealthy politicians.

The campaign finance laws have created a powerful bureaucracy and a set of laws that force politicians and even private citizens who wish to speak up to hire lawyers if they want to avoid being prosecuted for minute violations of arcane regulations. This does nothing to enhance democracy. The court should follow up on the blow it struck for free speech in Citizens United in McCutcheon. If it does, the only real losers will be those liberals who fear an unrestricted debate of the issues.

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A Rabbi Who Can’t Tell the Difference Between Iran and America

Absent the ability to make moral distinctions, ethics is a meaningless concept. Indeed, if you can’t tell the difference between, say, a despotic theocracy and a genuine if flawed democracy, you are in a poor position to claim any moral authority, let alone speak for a great religious tradition grounded in the Torah and the work of countless generations of Jewish scholars. Yet that is the position that CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership finds itself in today. Founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, CLAL’s main initial focus was to forge a sense of Jewish unity in an American community divided by bickering denominations and a vast array of political and religious disputes. If today, 16 years after Greenberg retired and was replaced by Rabbi Irwin Kula, many of its efforts often might be mistaken for a faint shadow of whatever liberal conventional wisdom recently came down the pike, its slogan “The Hebrew word for inclusive” still highlights a brand that is rooted in the idea of bringing together a diverse Jewish community.

Kula has never been mistaken for Greenberg, whose centrism was not just a pose but also a genuine conviction (he was fond of saying that no matter which denomination you belonged to, you had something to be ashamed of). Rather than tell each segment of American Jewry hard truths, Kula has specialized in telling liberal Jewish audiences what they want to hear. But while there has never been much doubt that he is a figure of the left, something he posted on his official Facebook page on Tuesday that claimed Iran’s faux elections are little different from America’s democratic system calls into questions not only his judgment, but his moral compass.

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Absent the ability to make moral distinctions, ethics is a meaningless concept. Indeed, if you can’t tell the difference between, say, a despotic theocracy and a genuine if flawed democracy, you are in a poor position to claim any moral authority, let alone speak for a great religious tradition grounded in the Torah and the work of countless generations of Jewish scholars. Yet that is the position that CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership finds itself in today. Founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, CLAL’s main initial focus was to forge a sense of Jewish unity in an American community divided by bickering denominations and a vast array of political and religious disputes. If today, 16 years after Greenberg retired and was replaced by Rabbi Irwin Kula, many of its efforts often might be mistaken for a faint shadow of whatever liberal conventional wisdom recently came down the pike, its slogan “The Hebrew word for inclusive” still highlights a brand that is rooted in the idea of bringing together a diverse Jewish community.

Kula has never been mistaken for Greenberg, whose centrism was not just a pose but also a genuine conviction (he was fond of saying that no matter which denomination you belonged to, you had something to be ashamed of). Rather than tell each segment of American Jewry hard truths, Kula has specialized in telling liberal Jewish audiences what they want to hear. But while there has never been much doubt that he is a figure of the left, something he posted on his official Facebook page on Tuesday that claimed Iran’s faux elections are little different from America’s democratic system calls into questions not only his judgment, but his moral compass.

The post (hat tip to Alan Luxenberg of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute) read as follows:

Of course there is a difference and yet there is something strangely parallel how in Iran you have to be vetted by the guardian council of clerics to run for president while in the United States, while you don’t have to be vetted by clerics, you have to be vetted by concentrations of private capital. With very rare exceptions unless you pass their filter, you don’t enter the political system. I guess one way or another it is always clerics…the only question being just what religion they are peddling, using, distorting? to preserve and expand their power…yes yes yes i would rather live here than in Iran…

While we’re glad that Kula prefers to dwell in the American theocracy of “private capital” to the pleasures of life in an Islamist state where Jews are demonized, that is about the only thought here that makes any sense. Suffice it to say that there is nothing remotely analogous about the process by which American politicians seek to raise money from citizens and groups and a system that rules as ineligible for inclusion on a ballot anyone who diverges even a smidge from the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Some on the left may lament the fact that Americans of all stripes and convictions can individually or collectively mobilize their financial resources to promote political speech or candidates as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. They may prefer a system in which all candidates are restricted to public funds. That would restrict the ability of citizens to express their opinions and preferences as well as to reinforce the influence of the mainstream liberal media. But to pretend that a system that provides opportunity for all comers to test their popularity and the strength of their ideas are also no different from the fake elections conducted in Iran is beyond absurd.

As an example of political insight, Kula’s rant ranks somewhere between the musings of a Marxist high school sophomore and the product of an Occupy Wall Street tent city seminar conducted in a haze of marijuana smoke. But what is really troubling about it is not so much an inane argument for campaign finance laws as is his not-so-subtle effort to legitimize the regime in Tehran or at least to defuse support for action against Iran.

At a time when Iran’s theocratic regime that has threatened genocide against Israel and the Jewish people continues to work toward the creation of a nuclear weapon to accomplish that despicable goal, for someone who claims the mantle of leadership to be making such specious analogies is a blow to efforts to push for Jewish unity on the issue of Iran. That CLAL would tolerate this type of behavior from its head speaks volumes about how far the group has fallen since Greenberg’s day.

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Schneiderman’s Partisan Fishing Expedition

Liberals are still seething over the way the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Citizens United decision in the Montana campaign finance law case where state restrictions on political spending were rightly overruled. But this defense of free speech rights will not go unanswered by a Democratic Party that thinks allowing citizens and groups to support ideas and candidates is a scandal. That’s why New York’s left-wing attorney general is launching a brazenly partisan attack on the right of political speech in the guise of an investigation of alleged violations of the tax code.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is a hard-line liberal who has been itching to use his post to both fight for restrictive campaign finance laws and to garner the publicity that will enable him to advance his career. On the surface, Schneiderman is merely conducting a probe into contributions to tax-exempt groups. But by focusing his attention on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business conservative group, the political intent of the investigation is obvious.

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Liberals are still seething over the way the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Citizens United decision in the Montana campaign finance law case where state restrictions on political spending were rightly overruled. But this defense of free speech rights will not go unanswered by a Democratic Party that thinks allowing citizens and groups to support ideas and candidates is a scandal. That’s why New York’s left-wing attorney general is launching a brazenly partisan attack on the right of political speech in the guise of an investigation of alleged violations of the tax code.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is a hard-line liberal who has been itching to use his post to both fight for restrictive campaign finance laws and to garner the publicity that will enable him to advance his career. On the surface, Schneiderman is merely conducting a probe into contributions to tax-exempt groups. But by focusing his attention on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business conservative group, the political intent of the investigation is obvious.

Schneiderman isn’t the first Democrat to try to use the post of New York attorney general to conduct politicized prosecutions to burnish his reputation. The now disgraced Eliot Spitzer’s attacks on Wall Street paved the way for his path to the governorship of the state. Current Governor Andrew Cuomo also used the post in this manner. But Schneiderman is not just another New York Democrat on the make. He’s an ideologue who campaigned on support for campaign finance laws and now appears to be willing to use his power to conduct an inquisition of conservative non-profits that will make him the darling of the left around the nation.

There is no obvious evidence of wrongdoing of any kind or legal violations on the part of the National Chamber Foundation, the Starr Foundation or the Chamber itself, though all have received subpoenas from Schneiderman. There is nothing unusual in the financing of some of the group’s activities by non-profit foundations. But what they are guilty of is being conservative groups in the crosshairs of leftist opponents seeking to brand their donations as somehow running afoul of the laws governing non-profits because of their advocacy for tort-reform, a cause that doesn’t sit well with Democratic constituencies such as trial lawyers and unions.

The same amorphous questions could be put to any non-profit involved in public advocacy. But political observers on both sides of the aisle understand that when probes like this are conducted, the only possible motivation is not respect for the law but a desire to criminalize political opponents.

Local political payback is also involved here because the Starr Group is headed by former AIG chair Maurice R. Greenberg, who was driven out of the country by a vindictive and ultimately failed prosecution launched by Spitzer during his climb up the greasy pole of New York politics.

Above all, the Schneiderman fishing expedition is an attempt to supply some proof that the Citizens United decision has unleashed a wave of political corruption, a key talking point for liberal critics of the landmark free speech case. In spite of their allegations that allowing organizations, including labor unions and other left-wing groups, to spend to promote their ideas, has despoiled politics, all Citizens United has done is to increase the amount of political speech. That is antithetical to leftists who wish to regulate the marketplace of ideas and repress the efforts of grassroots groups to fight back against big government initiatives.

Given the almost unlimited power of Schneiderman to conduct his probe, conservative groups should expect to be harassed in the coming months and years. But while Schneiderman and his cheerleaders in the mainstream press will represent this investigation as a public spirited attempt to rein in corruption, there can be no doubt that it is merely an unprincipled political witch hunt whose purpose is to cripple the efforts of conservative groups.

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Edwards Verdict Averts Miscarriage of Justice

To their credit, the jury in the John Edwards trial wasn’t bamboozled by the federal effort to treat the former presidential candidate’s personal misconduct as a federal crime. Nor did they validate the government’s effort to expand the scope of election finance laws by treating any expenditure relating to a candidate as being a campaign contribution. After a week of deliberations following a long trial and a confusing charge from the judge, Edwards was acquitted on one charge, and the jury were deadlocked on the other five counts. A mistrial was declared on the unresolved issues, meaning the Justice Department could return to the federal court in North Carolina to try Edwards again. But after an expensive and time-consuming flop, the U.S. Attorney should take the hint. It’s time to end the government’s attempt to jail the unpopular former senator and Democratic presidential candidate.

Like the high profile trials of people like Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds and the ongoing prosecution of Roger Clemens, Edwards was singled out because he is famous, rich and extremely disliked by the general public. Edwards’ personal misbehavior made him one of the most loathsome people in the country. But there was no justification for putting him on trial for lying to his now-deceased wife and the country about his affair and fathering an illegitimate child with a campaign videographer. As unjustified as the first attempt to use the campaign finance laws to punish him was, a second bite of the apple would be outrageous.

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To their credit, the jury in the John Edwards trial wasn’t bamboozled by the federal effort to treat the former presidential candidate’s personal misconduct as a federal crime. Nor did they validate the government’s effort to expand the scope of election finance laws by treating any expenditure relating to a candidate as being a campaign contribution. After a week of deliberations following a long trial and a confusing charge from the judge, Edwards was acquitted on one charge, and the jury were deadlocked on the other five counts. A mistrial was declared on the unresolved issues, meaning the Justice Department could return to the federal court in North Carolina to try Edwards again. But after an expensive and time-consuming flop, the U.S. Attorney should take the hint. It’s time to end the government’s attempt to jail the unpopular former senator and Democratic presidential candidate.

Like the high profile trials of people like Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds and the ongoing prosecution of Roger Clemens, Edwards was singled out because he is famous, rich and extremely disliked by the general public. Edwards’ personal misbehavior made him one of the most loathsome people in the country. But there was no justification for putting him on trial for lying to his now-deceased wife and the country about his affair and fathering an illegitimate child with a campaign videographer. As unjustified as the first attempt to use the campaign finance laws to punish him was, a second bite of the apple would be outrageous.

As I previously noted, there was a broader principle at stake in this trial than just whether Edwards would be further humiliated for his disgraceful conduct. Had the government succeeded in getting a judge and jury to agree that gifts from friends that were used to try and cover up his affair were campaign contributions, it would have opened up every politician in the country to prosecution on virtually any financial transaction while they were running for office. It may be, as some have pointed out, that the courts’ legalization of independent advocacy groups under the Citizens United decision would have provided a venue for what Edwards’ friends did in 2008. But a guilty verdict would still have validated a power grab to the government that could have made a great deal of political mischief in the hands of partisan prosecutors.

Having been beaten in court, the prosecutors should give up on this ill-considered celebrity scalp hunt and move on to trying real criminals. Edwards deserves to be treated as a pariah, but had he been convicted, it would have been a massive miscarriage of justice. Though we have often had reason to ponder the wisdom of jury trials, in this case the system appears to have worked.

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Edwards Show Trial Perverts Justice

As I wrote before the federal trial of John Edwards on campaign finance violation charges began, the former Democratic senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate is an easy person to dislike. No doubt many, if not most Americans, think a federal prison camp is too easy a punishment for a pompous, vain gasbag who publicly cheated on a much-admired wife while she was dying of cancer. But being a loathsome scoundrel is not a federal offense. Then again neither are the deeds for which federal prosecutors seek to have him jailed.

This truth was brought home today in court when the judge ruled the defense couldn’t present as a witness a former head of the Federal Elections Commission who was prepared to testify that Edwards’s actions that are alleged by the government to be crimes, were, in fact, not violations of the law. In spite of the inexplicable decision to exclude that rather pertinent piece of evidence, the defense was able to present the testimony of the chief financial officer of his campaign, who pointed out that the FEC actually approved the records submitted by his 2008 presidential effort. That renders the prosecutors’ attempt to claim the failure to report the money a prominent supporter donated to help cover up his affair was a crime a legal absurdity. The day’s events make it more clear than ever what is going on in this case is not just a typical example of prosecutorial overreach in which the government seeks to make an example of an unpopular rich person. Rather, it is an unprincipled and dangerous attempt to extend the reach of an already ambiguous set of laws in order to criminalize campaign donations.

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As I wrote before the federal trial of John Edwards on campaign finance violation charges began, the former Democratic senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate is an easy person to dislike. No doubt many, if not most Americans, think a federal prison camp is too easy a punishment for a pompous, vain gasbag who publicly cheated on a much-admired wife while she was dying of cancer. But being a loathsome scoundrel is not a federal offense. Then again neither are the deeds for which federal prosecutors seek to have him jailed.

This truth was brought home today in court when the judge ruled the defense couldn’t present as a witness a former head of the Federal Elections Commission who was prepared to testify that Edwards’s actions that are alleged by the government to be crimes, were, in fact, not violations of the law. In spite of the inexplicable decision to exclude that rather pertinent piece of evidence, the defense was able to present the testimony of the chief financial officer of his campaign, who pointed out that the FEC actually approved the records submitted by his 2008 presidential effort. That renders the prosecutors’ attempt to claim the failure to report the money a prominent supporter donated to help cover up his affair was a crime a legal absurdity. The day’s events make it more clear than ever what is going on in this case is not just a typical example of prosecutorial overreach in which the government seeks to make an example of an unpopular rich person. Rather, it is an unprincipled and dangerous attempt to extend the reach of an already ambiguous set of laws in order to criminalize campaign donations.

The government seems to think that by treating any money spent on behalf of a presidential candidate as a reportable donation it can establish a broad legal precedent. Though few would weep if Edwards were jailed because of the money spent to hush up his tawdry personal scandals, if this is a crime, then virtually anything done with or on behalf of a candidate even if it is not spent on campaign expenses can be treated as a donation and therefore be regulated. Were the courts to let them get away with this sleight of hand legal maneuver, it would be a huge power grab on the part of the federal government. It would give U.S. attorneys and their masters at the Justice Department the ability to trump up prosecutions against any politician they didn’t like, including those who are not quite as hard to like as John Edwards.

This cannot be allowed to happen. What is going on in that courtroom is nothing less than a show trial with potentially dangerous consequences for not only politicians but also the free speech rights of Americans to express political opinions that are financed by contributions. We already knew the movement to enact increasingly onerous and confusing campaign finance laws was a blight on our democracy. But the effort to criminalize John Edwards’s peccadilloes is particularly perilous for the future of fair elections.

Unfortunately, the trial judge in this case may have bought into the elastic logic that is the foundation of the government’s case. We can only hope that even if the jury in this case is blind to the prosecution’s misconduct here that an appeals court will eventually point out that what is going on in North Carolina is a travesty of justice.

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Justice Requires Acquittal of a Corrupt Politician

Jury selection starts today in the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards on six felony charges of federal campaign finance law violations involving an alleged conspiracy and the making of false statements. Despite the mountain of evidence that they claim backs up these allegations, the prosecutors’ main weapon in the trial will be the fact that Edwards is generally held to be among the most repulsive politicians to stride across our national stage in a generation. He is a vain, puffed up politician who was always something of a fraud even in his heyday. He is also a liar who cheated on his terminally ill wife and did everything possible to deceive the public about his affair and the child he fathered with his mistress. But that’s also the problem with this case. Absent Edward’s reputation as bottom-feeder, there is no way that any prosecutor would seek to bring anyone else to court on such flimsy charges.

The irony here is that although John Edwards is the quintessential sleazy politician who has earned the public’s scorn, his trial will actually be a crucial test of a key principle: Whether the Justice Department can interpret the byzantine and vague campaign finance laws so as to treat virtually anything a candidate gets as an official contribution that can be regulated. The case illustrates a fundamental principle of the legal system that demands that even the most loathsome of citizens deserves the same protections and rights as the most righteous. Though Americans may well think Edwards deserves a possible sentence of up to 30 years and $1.5 million in fines for his reprehensible conduct toward his late wife, he must be acquitted if we are to prevent the government from assuming more power that it could use against worthier citizens.

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Jury selection starts today in the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards on six felony charges of federal campaign finance law violations involving an alleged conspiracy and the making of false statements. Despite the mountain of evidence that they claim backs up these allegations, the prosecutors’ main weapon in the trial will be the fact that Edwards is generally held to be among the most repulsive politicians to stride across our national stage in a generation. He is a vain, puffed up politician who was always something of a fraud even in his heyday. He is also a liar who cheated on his terminally ill wife and did everything possible to deceive the public about his affair and the child he fathered with his mistress. But that’s also the problem with this case. Absent Edward’s reputation as bottom-feeder, there is no way that any prosecutor would seek to bring anyone else to court on such flimsy charges.

The irony here is that although John Edwards is the quintessential sleazy politician who has earned the public’s scorn, his trial will actually be a crucial test of a key principle: Whether the Justice Department can interpret the byzantine and vague campaign finance laws so as to treat virtually anything a candidate gets as an official contribution that can be regulated. The case illustrates a fundamental principle of the legal system that demands that even the most loathsome of citizens deserves the same protections and rights as the most righteous. Though Americans may well think Edwards deserves a possible sentence of up to 30 years and $1.5 million in fines for his reprehensible conduct toward his late wife, he must be acquitted if we are to prevent the government from assuming more power that it could use against worthier citizens.

John Edwards is an easy man to despise. His treatment of his wife and family and friends was awful. But these are private failings. The willingness of the press to avoid coverage of his personal conduct while he was a viable contender for his party’s presidential nomination was the real public scandal here.

There’s no question that Edwards behaved immorally by arranging for two wealthy friends and supporters to provide money for his mistress so his wife wouldn’t discover his affair. But the money given to Rielle Hunter, the equally sleazy campaign videographer who gave birth to Edwards’ child, was not a crime in the sense of the word that we normally use when discussing the court system. Gift taxes were paid on the money that was not funneled through Edwards’ presidential campaign accounts. The government’s attempt to treat this arrangement as an illegal campaign contribution for which he can be sent to jail for decades is an unprecedented attempt to expand the scope of laws that already require candidates to hire lawyers just to understand.

While the Justice Department will attempt to treat this case as the unraveling of a criminal conspiracy, what they are really doing is capitalizing on a tabloid scandal. The only reason Edwards is on trial is because he is a rich, famous and extremely unpopular person. Ambitious prosecutors believe they can convince a jury that is likely to view Edwards with as much disdain as the rest of the country that because his behavior was wrong and money was involved, that it was somehow a criminal affair.

What they are doing here is a classic case of prosecutorial overreach in which the government attempts to criminalize conduct that is worthy of censure but doesn’t actually constitute a violation of the law. Even worse, by expanding the reach of campaign finance laws, a guilty verdict against Edwards would strengthen the ability of the government to criminalize virtually any aspect of a candidate’s life. In the hands of unscrupulous officials, these laws could become a weapon to use against political enemies in a manner that could place even the most ethical politicians in the dock. Rather than give the government more power over this sphere, we need to pare back the byzantine maze of regulations.

John Edwards may well be the epitome of all that is wrong with American politics. But his prosecution symbolizes everything that is corrupt about the justice system.

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Schumer’s End Run on the Court Hasn’t a Chance

Politics is never short of irony. It was predictable that the Democrats would introduce legislation that attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down campaign-finance laws that sought to restrict political speech. To justify this stand, they claim they are standing up to “corporate America.” But it’s more than a little ironic that the Senate sponsor of this bill is Charles Schumer of New York, the man who has spent most of the past decade helping the Democrats raise big bucks from, you guessed it, corporate America.

The bill, as described in today’s New York Times will be a patchwork of restrictions as well as disclosure requirements for expenditures. But in spite of the fact that Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen claim their bill will comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, it is pretty clear that it does not. The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission specifically prohibited bans aimed at silencing specific groups or classes of persons or corporations. But the Democrat bill, though it targets corporations that are politically unpopular — government contractors, recipients of federal bailout money, and foreign corporations — clearly contravenes the Court’s ruling. This attempt to prohibit political commercials paid for by such groups is exactly the sort of thing that the majority ruling singled out as a violation of the First Amendment.

The Times quotes Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and the driving force behind the movement to overturn such unconstitutional infringements of free speech, as saying that the Democrats’ bill obviously flouts the law. Since the sponsors of the bill have presented it as a way of curbing the exact sort of spending that the Court said was legal, all he would have to do to overturn this piece of legislation is to merely quote its authors.

Running against “corporate America” is always good politics, but citizens do not lose their right to speak out on political issues or elections when they band together to form interest groups or corporations. The goal of Schumer’s bill, like the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that spawned the Citizens United case, is to silence entire classes of political speakers. The only winners in such a scheme are not the people or the principle of fair elections but the politicians and media corporations that have always been able to spend as much as they like in pursuit of whatever political cause or candidate they prefer. While more disclosure of expenditures is always welcome, it must also be done in such a way as to make compliance feasible. As the 2008 election proved, when Barack Obama raised vast sums on the Internet, full disclosure takes time and must be carefully done lest confidential financial information (like individual credit-card numbers) be published along with the names of contributors.

It is unlikely that the Schumer–Van Hollen bill will get anywhere this year despite the histrionics of the sponsors. But it is worth noting the blatant hypocrisy of Schumer, the poster child for crony capitalism whose fundraising efforts have been the nexus of a flood of corporate contributions to the Democratic party in recent years, claiming to be the defender of the ordinary guy against the influence of corporate money.

Also interesting is the silence of the former paladin of campaign-finance reform: Senator John McCain. If there was one issue above all others that alienated the Republican base from the 2008 GOP presidential candidate it was his championing of a “reform” that sought to restrict political speech. Facing a right-wing primary challenge for re-election this year, McCain’s office could only say that “the Supreme Court has spoken.” Yes, it has. And while President Obama and Schumer may play the demagogue on this issue, supporters of free speech can be thankful that the conservative majority on the Court has, at least for now, had the last word on this issue.

Politics is never short of irony. It was predictable that the Democrats would introduce legislation that attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down campaign-finance laws that sought to restrict political speech. To justify this stand, they claim they are standing up to “corporate America.” But it’s more than a little ironic that the Senate sponsor of this bill is Charles Schumer of New York, the man who has spent most of the past decade helping the Democrats raise big bucks from, you guessed it, corporate America.

The bill, as described in today’s New York Times will be a patchwork of restrictions as well as disclosure requirements for expenditures. But in spite of the fact that Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen claim their bill will comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, it is pretty clear that it does not. The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission specifically prohibited bans aimed at silencing specific groups or classes of persons or corporations. But the Democrat bill, though it targets corporations that are politically unpopular — government contractors, recipients of federal bailout money, and foreign corporations — clearly contravenes the Court’s ruling. This attempt to prohibit political commercials paid for by such groups is exactly the sort of thing that the majority ruling singled out as a violation of the First Amendment.

The Times quotes Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and the driving force behind the movement to overturn such unconstitutional infringements of free speech, as saying that the Democrats’ bill obviously flouts the law. Since the sponsors of the bill have presented it as a way of curbing the exact sort of spending that the Court said was legal, all he would have to do to overturn this piece of legislation is to merely quote its authors.

Running against “corporate America” is always good politics, but citizens do not lose their right to speak out on political issues or elections when they band together to form interest groups or corporations. The goal of Schumer’s bill, like the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that spawned the Citizens United case, is to silence entire classes of political speakers. The only winners in such a scheme are not the people or the principle of fair elections but the politicians and media corporations that have always been able to spend as much as they like in pursuit of whatever political cause or candidate they prefer. While more disclosure of expenditures is always welcome, it must also be done in such a way as to make compliance feasible. As the 2008 election proved, when Barack Obama raised vast sums on the Internet, full disclosure takes time and must be carefully done lest confidential financial information (like individual credit-card numbers) be published along with the names of contributors.

It is unlikely that the Schumer–Van Hollen bill will get anywhere this year despite the histrionics of the sponsors. But it is worth noting the blatant hypocrisy of Schumer, the poster child for crony capitalism whose fundraising efforts have been the nexus of a flood of corporate contributions to the Democratic party in recent years, claiming to be the defender of the ordinary guy against the influence of corporate money.

Also interesting is the silence of the former paladin of campaign-finance reform: Senator John McCain. If there was one issue above all others that alienated the Republican base from the 2008 GOP presidential candidate it was his championing of a “reform” that sought to restrict political speech. Facing a right-wing primary challenge for re-election this year, McCain’s office could only say that “the Supreme Court has spoken.” Yes, it has. And while President Obama and Schumer may play the demagogue on this issue, supporters of free speech can be thankful that the conservative majority on the Court has, at least for now, had the last word on this issue.

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