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Buying Off the Judiciary

With a little more than a month since the 2014 midterm elections that saw overwhelming Republican victories, we have had time to see one sad trend of American politics continued unabatedly. The disturbing trend is the continuing role of outside expenditures in federal elections—over $794 million across all the House and Senate races in 2014.

The pernicious effects of a dependence upon outside donors on the democratic process cannot be ignored. Politicians have come to rely heavily on financial contributions from people who are not their constituents, undermining the representative ideals of the Constitution.

But this issue is not just confined to federal offices—increasingly, state offices are up for sale too. Especially disturbing is the influence of external expenditures on sensitive offices like state attorney general or state judge, where impartiality is especially expected.

Although Massachusetts does not publicly elect its justices, 38 states undergo a statewide election to determine its judges. Across the country, there have been cases of highly partisan campaigns over court seats. According to Justice at Stake, a national organization that seeks to keep courts fair and impartial, outside groups spent around $4.9 million in TV advertisement attempting to influence Supreme Court races. The Republican State Leadership Committee pours a remarkable amount of money into these races; they spent $720,000 to purchase numerous TV ad buys in Montana and Illinois and contributed over $1.4 million to local groups in Tennessee and North Carolina, all in 2014.

Alicia Bannon, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, condemns how justices now “campaign and fundraise like politicians,” and that the solution is to introduce “public financing so judges don’t have to rely on special interests to get elected.”

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Even more upsetting is the growing friendship between various state attorneys general and outside corporations. The New York Times recently reported on the cozy relationship between energy companies and a dozen attorneys general, cemented with over $16 million in campaign contributions this year alone. In fact, an investigation by the Times discovered that “individual attorneys general have shut down investigations, changed policies or agreed to more corporate-friendly settlement terms after intervention by lobbyists and lawyers, many of whom are also campaign benefactors.”

Suffice it to say that these elected individuals do not appear to have their constituents in mind.

Corporations are targeting these races because of the potentially tremendous financial gains that come with the assistance of attorneys general.

With the ability to sway consumer protection regulation and anti-trust law within a state, attorneys general have become a massive target for outside influence. For example, in the Nevada election between Adam Laxalt and incumbent Ross Miller, a Virginia non-profit, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, bought a $500,000 ad campaign to support Laxalt and his “free market principles.” Unfortunately, in a post-Citizens United world, this particular scenario is becoming the norm, not the exception.

We are fed up with this system of political corruption. We’re Harvard College Democracy Matters, a chapter of a national non-partisan student organization that is building a broad student movement to get big private money out of politics and people back in. Although the United States needs a plethora of intelligent policies to restore its democracy, the first step requires pressuring elected officials to acknowledge the existence of the problem and pledge to fix it. For this reason, Democracy Matters created the Democracy Pledge.

It reads: “I support restoring Democracy by publicly financing elections and taking big money out of politics.” So far almost 1000 students have signed the pledge in the New England area, which inspired Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Mark Takano ’83 of California to sign on as well.

Money in politics is not a Democratic or a Republican issue; it’s an issue that applies to all of us and all the issues we care about. We need to tackle this issue in order to improve governance and pass meaningful reform on any number of issues, from immigration to climate change, gun violence to the tax and regulatory codes. We hope you join us by getting involved in our Democracy Matters chapter and signing the pledge. We still have a chance to restore democracy in America, but we need to take it.

Jonah C. Hahn ’17 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House, Daniel E. Backman ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Mather House, and Samuel M. G. Plank ’18 lives in Matthews Hall. They are members of Harvard Democracy Matters.

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