Discussion: Money Obstructing Democracy in Wake of Citizens United

Bert podium
Bert Brandenburg

Every branch of government in every state has seen consequences in the five years since the Citizens United decision was handed down. 

Eight organizations presented research at today’s event – Five Years After Citizens United: What are the Costs for Democracy? Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake, explained that courts are being forced to bend to political pressure, turning them into “politicians in black robes.” He also noted that the upcoming Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar case will be an important hallmark, as the Supreme Court must decide if judges are permitted to directly solicit donations to finance their campaigns.

“Money and justice don’t belong in the same sentence,” Brandenburg declared, concluding his presentation with a sentiment that was woven into every presentation.

Demos research showed that senators must raise $3,300 every day to run campaigns, encouraging them to solicit large donations to ease the burden. Meanwhile, it is nearly impossible for a person to challenge an incumbent at any level if not prepared to write a large check themselves, State Rep. Matthew Lesser of Connecticut argues. He, however, was able to run a successful campaign against an incumbent in the 2008 election, thanks to public matching of small donor contributions.

Adam Lioz from Demos described the The Government by the People Act, which was presented to the U.S. House in March 2014. Under these regulations (similar the successful regulations in Connecticut) 77% of Representatives elected in 2014 would have raised at least as much money without the ethical quandaries associated with accepting large sums from a handful of individuals.

A number of remedies were discussed, including disclosure of all donations, requiring judges to recuse themselves for any financial conflicts of interest, and strengthening laws prohibiting coordination between Super Pacs and candidates.

Presenters included Karen Shanton, Policy Analyst at Demos; Ian Vanderwalker, Counsel for Brennan Center for Justice; Taylor Lincoln, Research Director at Public Citizen; Brendan Fischer, General Counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy; Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake; Jay Riestenberg, Research Analyst at Common Cause; Adam Lioz, Counsel and Senior Advisor at Demos; Tam Doan, Research Director at Public Campaign; Dan Smith, Democracy Campaign Director at U.S. PIRG; and Matthew Lesser, State Representative (D-CT).