Supreme Court Roundup Part One: McCutcheon v. FEC

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Election Law, First Amendment, Public, Speakers at Marquette, U.S. Supreme Court
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Boss_Tweed,_Thomas_NastOn October 30, I participated in a presentation entitled “Supreme Court Roundup” with Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute.  The event was sponsored by the Law School chapters of the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society.  We discussed three significant cases from the 2013-2014 Supreme Court term: McCutcheon v. FEC, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn.  It was a spirited discussion, in which Mr. Shapiro and I presented opposing views, but I want to thank Mr. Shapiro for taking the time to visit the Law School and for sharing his perspective with the students.

This is the first of three blog posts on the presentation.  What follows are my prepared remarks on McCutcheon v. FEC.  Readers interested in Mr. Shapiro’s position on the case can refer to the amicus brief that he filed on behalf of the Cato Institute.

In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court considered whether campaign finance laws imposing annual aggregate contribution limits violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.  A plurality of the Court answered “yes,” without reaching the issue of whether limits on contributions to individual candidates also violated the Constitution.  Justice Thomas concurred with the plurality opinion, but would have gone further and overruled the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld individual contribution limits.  Four Justices dissented.

The plurality opinion in McCutcheon, written by Justice Roberts, reasoned that legal limits on aggregate contributions violate the First Amendment unless the government has a compelling interest to regulate such spending.  But the only possible compelling interest available to the government is the avoidance of quid pro quo bribery, which aggregate contribution limits do nothing to prevent.

The reasoning of the plurality is not a surprise.  In one sense, this reasoning is unobjectionable on the grounds that it is simply a logical application of the rationale adopted by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), which struck down campaign finance laws prohibiting independent expenditures by corporations and unions.  The problem is that Citizens United was a sharp and unjustified break with prior precedent. Read more »

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Single Sixteen-Year Terms Would Build Confidence in State Supreme Court, Task Force Members Say

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Category: Election Law, Public, Speakers at Marquette, Wisconsin Supreme Court
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The idea of the judiciary as independent guardians of the rule of law has taken a beating in Wisconsin in recent years, amid highly contentious state Supreme Court races and the widely publicized divisions within the state Supreme Court.

What plan with a realistic chance of being enacted could help restore respect for the judicial branch of state government as separate from politics?

That premise and that question shaped the work of a four-member task force of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and what the task force recommended recently is a plan that would be unique in the nation: Election of state Supreme Court justices to 16-year terms, without any opportunity to run for reelection.

The four members of the task force described how they settled on that proposal in a recent “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall. Read more »

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Boden Lecture: Gerken Warns About “Shadow Parties” Dominating Politics

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Category: Election Law, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Speakers at Marquette
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Heather Gerken views the political party faithful in the Republican and Democratic parties as “the most glorious creatures in American politics.”

But Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright Professor at Yale Law School, told several hundred people in the Appellate Courtroom in Eckstein Hall on Monday that she is concerned that the party faithful are being left out as political power moves increasingly into “shadow parties” of powerful people in political elites. She feared the result would be a decrease in the force on parties to “do right” by voters.

Gerken, whose views on how politics works in America have received wide attention from both scholars and policymakers, gave the annual Boden Lecture at Marquette University Law School.

In a second session at the Law School, she addressed a separate provocative topic: how innovation in American policy has been undertaken increasingly at the state and local levels in recent years, rather than at the national level. She discussed “How ‘Local’ Should Politics Be?” along with Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy at the Law School, and Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as part of the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” series. Read more »

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Margaret Thatcher and Women in Government

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Category: Election Law, Federal Law & Legal System, Feminism, International Law & Diplomacy, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Popular Culture & Law, Public

“I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.”

– Margaret Thatcher

One of the world’s most powerful women died today.  Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s only woman prime minister, was 87.

Thatcher, leader of the country’s Conservative Party, was British prime minister from 1979 to 1990.  According to, she shared “a close working relationship” with former President Ronald Reagan, “with whom she shared similar conservative views.” Initially dubbed “Iron Lady” by Soviet journalists, she was well known (for better or for worse) for her personal and professional toughness. (For interesting commentary on Thatcher and her impact, see here, here, and here.)                                               

Thatcher was a trailblazer, one of just a very few women to become heads of their country’s government. While women make up nearly half of the world’s population, worldwide, they represent roughly 16% of the members of national governing bodies.  In the United States, women account for only 18.1% of Congress, 33% of the United States Supreme Court, and no woman has ever been elected president.

So, what’s the problem? Some would argue that there’s nothing stopping women from running for office, even for president. True, there are no laws that outright prohibit women’s participation in government.  (Saudia Arabia, long the hold out on allowing women to vote and to serve in government, has finally reversed course.)  But there are other barriers that may be less obvious. Read more »

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Today’s Most Important Assignment

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Category: Election Law, Public
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About a month ago, Anna Kloeden raised thought-provoking questions about how a compulsory voting system might affect the candidates’ substantive positions as well as the ways in which campaigns are conducted. Her post made me wonder what is known about nonvoters. How numerous are they? Where are they on the political spectrum? What are the reasons they don’t vote?

According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 64% of voting-age citizens voted in the 2008 presidential elections, and 71% were registered to vote. The report notes significant variations in voting turn-out depending on race / origin (non-Hispanic blacks and whites had significantly higher voting rates than Asians and Hispanics), age (voting rates increased with age), and education level (higher education levels corresponded with higher voting rates). Nonvoters are not without opinions. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that non-voting hurts the Democrats: nonvoters overwhelmingly favor Obama (59%) over Romney (24%), and the Democrats (52%) over the Republican Party (27%). Nonvoters express stronger support for a more active government and for the 2010 health care law. As for foreign policy issues, withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan finds significantly more support under nonvoters than under likely voters. Nonvoters are less supportive of an aggressive stance toward Iran because of its nuclear program. Read more »

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What Happens if the Presidential Election Is a Tie?

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Category: Congress & Congressional Power, Constitutional Law, Election Law, Public

Suppose President Obama wins all of the electoral votes from (1) all of the Northeastern states except New Hampshire; (2) Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Virginia; (3) all of the states that border on the Pacific Ocean except Alaska; and (4) New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan. Assume also that Governor Romney wins all of the electoral votes in the remaining 30 states. The results? A 269 to 269 tie, in terms of electoral votes.

What would happen then?

If, when the electors vote on December 17, each elector casts his or her ballot for the candidate each supported, the failure of any candidate to achieve a majority of the votes would be certified on January 6 by the President of the United States Senate, who is, of course, Vice President Joe Biden.

Under the terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the newly elected House of Representatives, which took office on January 3, will then vote to elect a President. Under the 12th Amendment, Congress is required to choose from the three candidates with the highest total of electoral votes from among those receiving electoral votes. Since under this scenario, only Romney and Obama receive electoral votes, the House would have to choose either Romney or Obama.

Under the terms of the Amendment, each state has a single vote, which is determined by how a majority of that state’s Representatives vote. This means that both Alaska and California would have the same one vote, and 26 votes would be necessary to elect a president.

Read more »

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When Did Wisconsin’s Vote Really Ever Matter?

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Category: Election Law, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Both major party presidential candidates in 2012 seem committed to spending time and money campaigning in Wisconsin, and a few pundits have even speculated that the upcoming election might be decided by the votes of the Badger State.

Local enthusiasm aside, how likely is it that Wisconsin’s electoral votes could actually decide the presidential election? Unfortunately, if history is any guide, not very likely.

Since their state’s admission to the United States on May 29, 1848, Wisconsinites have voted in 41 presidential elections, and the state has supported the winning candidate 32 times.

In ten consecutive elections from 1948 until 1984, the Badger state sided with the winning candidate, and had it not been for the surprising decision to support Dewey over FDR in 1948—after voting for Roosevelt by large margins in the three previous elections—the streak would have been 15 in a row.

However, in only one election—that of 1876—did Wisconsin’s votes actually matter, at least in the sense that in all the other elections, had Wisconsin gone with the losing candidate, the result would still have been the same. Read more »

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New Poll: Republican Senate Race Changes as Presidential Race Stays Steady

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With just over a month to go to the Aug. 14 primary election that will pick a Republican candidate for US Senate, the four-way race is changing shape, according to results released Wednesday by the Marquette Law School Poll. Support for Madison businessman Eric Hovde is rising while support for former Congressman Mark Neumann and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is declining, the poll results show. Former Governor Tommy Thompson’s support has changed little and he remains in the lead. But with 25% of likely voters in the primary saying they are undecided, the outcome of the race is hard to foresee.

The poll found Thompson supported by 35% of likely primary voters, compared to 34% a month ago, and Hovde supported by 23%, up from 14% a month ago. Neumann was at 10% (down from 16%) and Fitzgerald at 6% (down from 10%).

In match-ups of each of the four Republican candidates against the Democratic candidate in the November final election, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the current outcomes were within the margin of error, with Thompson ahead of Baldwin and Baldwin leading Hovde, Neumann, and Fitzgerald.

The poll also found little change in the presidential race in Wisconsin, with Democratic President Barack Obama ahead of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, 51% to 43%.

In the aftermath of the US Supreme Court decision on the federal health insurance law, there was little overall change in Wisconsinites’ opinions of the law and in the overall numbers for how people rated the Supreme Court. But there was a notable decrease in favorable views of the Court among Republicans and a notable increase among Democrats.

For more information and full results of the poll, click here.


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Money and the Recall

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Category: Election Law, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System

Paul Secunda, as a labor law professor, weighs in on the aftermath of the recall. He makes some good points. But as (I think) one of two people in Wisconsin who teach Election Law (Mike Wittenwyler, an adjunct at UW, is the other), I would like to revise and extend his remarks.

Paul complains of the “8 to 1″ spending advantage said to have been enjoyed by Scott Walker and suggests that this somehow can be attributed to the the results of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. This advantage, while overstated, is the result of a law. But that law has nothing to do with Citizens United.

First, a caveat on the “8 to 1″ figure.

As my colleague, Tom Kamenick, pointed out (and not at my direction, I was off in DC), this metric doesn’t reflect the situation on the ground.  Read more »

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Tearing Down Fences

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Category: Election Law, Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System

G.K. Chesterton, the English essayist and Catholic thinker, said the following:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.”

To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

G.K. Chesterton, “The Drift From Domesticity,” in THE THING (1929).

It is long past time to stop tearing down fences in Wisconsin. Read more »

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The Use and Misuse of History

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Election Law, Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System

In his novel 1984, George Orwell imagined a future world where a government at war could switch allegiances with the country’s enemies and allies and a docile public would accept the revised version of history unquestioningly.  Orwell, a keen observer of the modern world, recognized that history itself could be manufactured and manipulated in the service of broader purposes.

This morning’s edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contains an opinion piece by Chrisitian Schneider of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) entitled “Not What They Meant Democracy to Look Like.”  In it, Mr. Schneider argues that the current effort to recall Governor Scott Walker and other elected state officials runs contrary to the original intent of Senator Bob La Follette and other advocates of the recall provisions of the Wisconsin State Constitution.  His op ed is excerpted from a larger piece that Mr. Schneider has authored for WPRI entitled “The History of the Recall in Wisconsin.

In the newspaper piece, Mr. Schneider makes the assertion that “a review of documents and press accounts from the time the recall constitutional amendment passed shows that the current use of the recall is far different from what the original drafters had envisioned.”  His argument is that the recall provisions of the Wisconsin Constitution were intended to apply solely to judges and state senators, and not to executive branch officials such as the governor, because the two year term of office in place for governors at the time that the amendment passed would have made the recall of a governor impractical.

The historical record is completely contrary to Mr. Schneider’s assertion.  Moreover, the evidence that he relies upon is completely inadequate to establish the existence of the skewed original intent that he advances. Read more »

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Signing a Recall Petition Does Not Require Judicial Recusal

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Category: Constitutional Law, Election Law, First Amendment, Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Ethics, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Wisconsin Court System, Wisconsin Law & Legal System

We live in interesting times.  A segment of the general public is quick to forgive the killing of two young men in Slinger, Wisconsin and Sanford, Florida as the unavoidable consequence of the exercise of a constitutional right.  Yet at the same time, state court judges who have exercised their constitutional right of self-governance by signing a recall petition are being publicly called out by both special interest groups and the media, as if by signing the petition they have transgressed some moral boundary.  These are interesting times, indeed.

The signing of a recall petition is a right guaranteed by Article XIII of the Wisconsin Constitution.  It is a procedure whereby any voter can request that the continuation in office of an elected official in the State of Wisconsin should be put to the vote of the full electorate.  If a sufficient number of voters sign the petition, a recall election is held.  A recall can only succeed in removing the officeholder if both a sufficient number of recall signatures are filed and a majority of the electorate votes in favor of removal.  The Recall is democratic self-governance in its purest form, and along with the Initiative and the Referendum it is one of the three structural vehicles by which Progressive Era voters sought to bypass the influence that special interests hold on elected bodies.

The Wisconsin GOP has filed an official complaint against Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan with the Judicial Commission on the grounds that the judge should have recused himself in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Wisconsin Voter ID law.  Must judges who have signed a recall petition subsequently recuse themselves from sitting on any case in which the Governor, or Republican legislators, or the Republican Party of Wisconsin asserts that the signing of the petition evidences a bias against them?  The answer is “no.”  There is no explicit provision that prohibits judges from signing a recall petition or that mandates that they recuse themselves from any politically charged case if they have done so. Read more »

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