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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Apr 8, 2021

Campaign Finance Laws

The Supreme Court often operates like a conservative activist group to help the GOP. One of the most egregious ways they've tipped the scales is in campaign finance. Starting with their infamous Buckley ruling in 1976, SCOTUS categorized corporate political donations as free speech. Their 2011 follow-up, Citizens United, removed almost all limitations on political spending, creating a vast increase in campaign spending. Rich Americans and corporations are now free to give as much as they want to whoever they want. This has greatly benefitted Republicans at the cost of electoral fairness.


The liberal, pro-New Deal, Warren Court was replaced in 1969 by the conservative Burger Court. The contrast was stark. One of the Warren Court's last cases provided significant due process protections to poor Americans whose welfare benefits were in danger. As soon as the Nixon-appointed Burger stepped in, decisions changed. The Burger Court immediately heard a case involving family caps on welfare and ruled in the opposite direction. Families with more than four children could only receive benefits for the maximum cap of four children, exacerbating poverty for large families. With that ruling, a new tone was struck and SCOTUS has ruled against the poor ever since.


The conservative Burger Court also devastated public education. It reversed a Texas decision, which had ruled that the state must fund rich and poor school districts equally. This SCOTUS decision essentially created a tiered school system with affluent neighborhoods on the top and poor ones on the bottom. Next, it ruled that desegregation efforts in schools could not cross urban/suburban lines. This transformative ruling undercut desegregation efforts and exacerbated schooling inequities. Today, many schools are segregated by both race and class because of these rulings.

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Adam Cohen, a former member of the New York Times editorial board and senior writer for Time magazine, is the author of Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court's Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America. He is also the author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck and Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was president of volume 100 of the Harvard Law Review.

You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamscohen.