Friday, May 2, 2014

Money is not speech

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is back in the news. One reason is the publication of his new book Six Amendments, How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. The other reason is he was before Congress in a hearing on "dark money," secret campaign donations. Short summary of his testimony: "Money is not speech." And slightly longer: there is a difference in permissibility of speech "because of a very strong state interest in trying to establish equality of opportunity for competing candidates to get elected."

Stevens is the third longest serving Justice, retiring in 2010. He is now 94. His dissent in Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 election, is important. He also dissented in the Citizens United case that unleashed campaign spending.

The NPR stories this week (links above) only briefly mentioned the six amendments Stevens thinks are appropriate, not saying much about what those amendments are. So I turned to another source: Amazon and its book reviews. The ones by William Springer and Loyd Eskildson fill in the details. Springer tries to review the book and not say how he feels about each amendment. I won't limit myself that way. Here is a description of the six amendments. Not all of them seem important.

* The Supremacy Clause says the federal gov't says judges can compel states to enforce federal laws. Stevens would expand that to include other public officials.

* A limit to gerrymandering. Political districts must be compact and contiguous. Springer's review seems to imply that the Supremes could take on the issue now, though they have only done so in gerrymandering involving race. I think this one is very important, though one part is missing: district maps must be drawn up by independent and impartial boards.

* Congress and the states may impose reasonable limits to campaign spending. Yes, it means Congress and legislatures define what "reasonable" means, but that would be reviewed by the Supremes. I think another method is better, to have public funding of campaigns. This is another one of high importance.

* Clarifies that a state, its agencies, and its officers are subject to acts of Congress and the Constitution.

* The death penalty should be banned. I agree and think this one might have the easiest chance of getting passed.

* The right to bear arms is restricted to when serving in the Militia. This is the one that will grab the attention. It is another of high importance and one I agree with.

I'm pleased to see my two top issues -- gerrymandering and campaign finance -- are in the list. Once these are in place, other issues, such as gun control and death penalty, would be easier to do.

Springer concludes by saying the book is a disappointment. The arguments Stevens uses aren't sufficiently convincing that the solutions Stevens proposes are the best. It is a missed opportunity. Eskildson is disappointed Stevens doesn't cover the difficulty in getting the Constitution amended. There is essentially zero chance these amendments would get through 2/3 of both the Senate and House and 3/4 of the states. Perhaps the first thing to change is to make amending the Constitution easier.

I have a hard time agreeing with the last point. The Michigan Constitution is too easy to amend and all kinds of (forgive me for saying it) crap, such as the same-sex marriage ban, has been crammed into it.

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