Chief Justice Roberts Tells Politicians to Serve Their Donors

As Paul Blumenthal has just noted on this site, Chief Justice John Roberts has now come within an inch of saying that politicians must do the bidding of their biggest donors.

Distinguishing politicians from judges last Wednesday in his opinion for the majority in Williams-Yulee vs. Florida bar, Roberts writes that politicians "are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters. Indeed, such 'responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.'"

As Blumenthal explains, Roberts here quotes from his own majority opinion in the 2014 case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down aggregate campaign contribution limits. In McCutcheon, Roberts wrote that "Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and responsive to those concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials."

But in quoting from this 2014 opinion, as Blumenthal also notes, Roberts redefines his own key term, "responsiveness." While it presumably still excludes readiness "to follow constituent orders," as Roberts wrote in 2014, it now means something other than willingness to respond to constituents' concerns. It means willingness to respond to "the preferences" of one's "supporters."

In other words, Roberts now says that politicians are expected to favor the wishes of their donors--not to serve the needs of their constituents as a whole. And if Roberts believes that politicians must favor the wishes of their supporters, may we not infer that he also thinks the value of their favors should depend on how much their supporters give? At best, Roberts stops just one inch short of saying so.

It is startling to compare this definition of political responsiveness with that of Edmund Burke, one of the greatest conservatives of all time. Speaking to the electors of Bristol, England, in 1774, Burke declared:

"Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

With the wording of his opinion in Williams-Yulee vs. Florida bar, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States has effectively told all the politicians in this land to sacrifice their judgment (if they have any) in just this way--but not to their constituents. Oh no.

To their donors.