Press Releases

NYT Opinion: Why the Supreme Court Is Blind to Its Own Corruption

May 18, 2023

Randall D. Eliason, the former chief of the fraud and public corruption section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, published an essay in the New York Times today connecting the dots between Citizens United and the Supreme Court’s corruption.

Eliason also makes the case for passing the DISCLOSE Act to shine a light on the money being spent to capture the court.

New York Times: Why the Supreme Court Is Blind to Its Own Corruption

Randall D. Eliason

Key Sections:

  • Over more than two decades, the Supreme Court has gutted laws aimed at fighting corruption and at limiting the ability of the powerful to enrich public officials in a position to advance their interests. As a result, today wealthy individuals and corporations may buy political access and influence with little fear of legal consequences, either for them or for the beneficiaries of their largess.

  • [Justice Clarence Thomas] has been under fire for secretly accepting, from the Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, luxury vacations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a real estate deal (involving the home where his mother was living) and the payment of private school tuition for a grandnephew the justice was raising. Meanwhile, over the years, conservative groups with which Mr. Crow was affiliated filed amicus briefs in several matters before the Supreme Court.

  • The landmark case is the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. A five-justice majority — including Justice Thomas — struck down decades-old restrictions on independent campaign expenditures by corporations, holding that they violated the companies’ free speech rights. It rejected the argument that such laws were necessary to prevent the damage to democracy that results from unbridled corporate spending and the undue influence it can create.

  • Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending on behalf of political candidates and to the influence that spending necessarily provides

  • Those who think Justice Thomas may be guilty of corruption may not realize just how difficult the court itself has made it to prove such a case.

  • A powerful conservative with interests before the court who regularly provides a justice with vacations worth more than his annual salary is, as the court said in Citizens United, merely the “appearance” of potential corruption. In the court’s view, the public has no reason to be concerned.

  • But the public clearly is, and should be, concerned over the ability of the rich and powerful to purchase access and influence unavailable to most citizens.

  • But it’s still possible for the rest of the country to move past the court’s naïve and inadequate view of corruption.

  • It could increase funding for enforcement of the Ethics in Government Act and increase the penalties for filing a false financial disclosure form (or failing to file one at all). Beefed up disclosure regulations could make it more difficult for officials to hide financial interests and could make it clear there are no disclosure exceptions for enormous gifts of “personal hospitality,” contrary to what Justice Thomas claims he believed. And Congress could pass legislation like the proposed Disclose Act, to require transparency regarding who is behind political donations and spending.

  • Congress so far has shown little interest in passing such reforms. But that’s where the remedy lies. It’s time for Congress to act.

  • In his Citizens United dissent, Justice Stevens observed, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” That’s exactly how it now appears to the public — and that applies to Supreme Court justices as well as to politicians.