While presidential candidates, especially on the Democratic side, are campaigning heavily on promises to do everything in their power to reverse Supreme Court rulings striking down limits on big money in political campaigns, California candidates for the U.S. Senate are ducking the issue.
Hardly a day goes by without Bernie Sanders railing against the Supreme Court's opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which he says is one of the worst rulings ever. On the third day of her campaign Hilary Clinton announced that overturning Citizens United would be one of the four pillars of her campaign.
Both Sanders and Clinton have said that they would use a litmus test in considering nominees for the Supreme Court to ensure that any new justice would be committed to reversing the doctrine that unlimited campaign spending is the same thing as free speech. Yet neither Kamala Harris or Loretta Sanchez has mentioned big money in politics even as one of many criteria they would use to evaluate future judges in recent comments to the news media.
Perhaps California's would-be Senators are nostalgic for an imagined era where Supreme Court members weren't seen as naked partisans, but instead held open minds about issues that might come before them. It's debatable whether such an age ever existed. As Thomas Jefferson noted in an 1820 letter to Thomas Kercheval, "our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. They have with others the same passion for the party, for power, and the privilege of the [corporations]."
There was a time when the Supreme Court refrained from ruling in matters it deemed too political, leaving them up to elected officials and, in the end, up to the voters to decide. But after deciding a presidential election in Bush v. Gore, unleashing a torrent of special interest money in Citizens United, and striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act, our modern court has revealed that for better or worse, its members are little more than politicians wearing robes.
With the balance of power between four Democratically-appointed Justices who usually rule in unison and four Republican appointed justices who are equally partisan, the battle over who shall replace Justice Antonin Scalia is inherently a political one. It should come as no surprise that as the Supreme Court has increasingly inserted itself into politics, that politics are now integral to court confirmations--except it seems in California.
While every Democrat in the U.S. Senate voted for a constitutional amendment to re-establish campaign spending limits in 2014, Kamala Harris doesn't even mention money in politics as an issue on her website. Loretta Sanchez has had years in Congress where she could have joined 149 other members of the House of Representatives in co-sponsoring such an amendment, yet she has not.
Even Republican presidential candidates are taking stronger stands against big money in politics than any of California's Democratic Senate candidates. Republican John Kasich recently said "I don't think letting a handful of billionaires determine who's going to be president is good for the country." Donald Trump has said we need to get rid of Super PACs. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary Jeb Bush declared that the Supreme Court had it wrong in Citizens United, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has said we're going to need a constitutional amendment to fix things. Californian Republican Senate candidate Duff Sundheim has called Citizens United "one of the largest threats to our democracy" but has not proposed any solution to it.
The silence of California's leading senate candidates about Citizens United is particularly odd given that voters this fall will likely have a chance to instruct them to take specific action to overturn it. The California legislature placed Proposition 49 on the ballot calling upon our elected officials to reverse Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. That vote was delayed by the California Supreme Court, but the court has cleared the way for the legislature to place it back on the ballot. Are our Senate candidates ready to listen to us?