Can the Supreme Court Save America from Plutocracy?

photo of Rick Hasen
March 17, 2016

UC Irvine law professor and election-law blogger Rick Hasen scheduled his IGS book talk long before President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the timing of Hasen’s talk on March 16 turned out to be perfect.

Just hours after Obama’s nomination of Garland, Hasen spoke about his new book, Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections. Arguing that massive campaign contributions create gross political inequality that distorts politics and policy, Hasen argued that we should change the U.S. Constitution to allow contribution limits. But to do that, he didn’t push for a constitutional amendment, but rather for a Supreme Court reconfigured through the sort of natural turnover evidenced by Merrick’s nomination.

Hasen, who spoke at an event cosponsored by IGS and the Berkeley Law School, teaches election law at UC Irvine and also writes the popular Election Law Blog, which is widely read for its coverage and commentary regarding legal issues related to American elections and politics.

Hasen argued that mega-donations skew politics and policy outcomes toward the preferences of the very wealthy.

"I'm not against lots of money in politics," said Hasen. "I'm against lots of money coming from too few donors."

He noted that often candidates with the most money lose, and furthermore that the problem with money in politics does not generally include politicians taking bribes. Rather, the problem is that through massive donations from single individuals, economic inequality is transformed into political inequality.

To rectify that, Hasen proposed limiting individual spending to $25,000 per-person, per-cycle, even for wealthy candidates funding their own campaigns. But the Supreme Court’s current constitutional interpretations, Hasen noted, make it impossible to limit individual spending so severely. Which is why Hasen looks to the inevitable change of justices to produce a new constitutional scheme.

Hasen also supported the idea of giving everyone a $100 voucher which they could use to make a political donation to the cause of their choosing.

"I think if you give someone $100, you are saying, 'You have a stake in this election,'" said Hasen.

Photo by Farrah Kazemi