Opinion | The Supreme Court Is Putting Democracy at Risk


What’s worse, the court did not decide Brnovich in a vacuum but after two other significant decisions that undermined the fight against restrictive voting rules. In a 2008 decision, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the court again put a thumb on the scale favoring a state’s restrictive laws when it upheld Indiana’s voter identification law against an argument that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. And in the infamous 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, the court killed off the part of the Voting Rights Act that required states and other jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get approval before they could adopt laws that could burden minority voters.

We were assured back then not to worry about the loss of this preclearance provision because there was always Section 2 to fall back on. So much for that. There are now fewer and fewer tools with which to fight suppressive voting rules in the federal courts.

And Justice Alito ended with a shot across the bow for Congress, should it consider amending the Voting Rights Act to provide an easier standard for minority plaintiffs to meet, such as Justice Kagan’s disparate impact test in dissent. Such a test, he wrote, would “deprive the states of their authority to establish nondiscriminatory voting rules,” potentially in violation of the Constitution.

The news on the campaign finance front is almost as dire. In the Americans for Prosperity case, the court considered a law that required charities to disclose their donors in reports filed with the government of California. The state wanted the information for law enforcement purposes, to ferret out fraud by charities, and by law, the information was not supposed to be publicly released. Unfortunately, California had leaks, and some of the information was disclosed. The groups challenging the law said compelled disclosure of their donors violated their First Amendment rights. They put forth evidence that their donors faced danger of harassment if they were revealed. The court had long held that those who face such a danger can be exempt from disclosure rules.

Once again, it is unsurprising that this particular conservative majority on the Supreme Court sided with these conservative charities. And had the court said only that California’s law as applied to those facing a threat of harassment was unconstitutional, it would have been no big deal. But the majority opinion, by Chief Justice John Roberts, is much more troubling. The court held the disclosure law could not be applied to anyone, even those not facing a risk of harassment. He also rejiggered the First Amendment standards to call many other laws into question.

In the Americans for Prosperity case, he redefined the “exacting scrutiny” standard to judge the constitutionality of disclosure laws so that the government must show its law is “narrowly tailored” to an important government interest. This makes it more like strict scrutiny and more likely that disclosure laws will be struck down. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “Today’s analysis marks reporting and disclosure requirements with a bull’s-eye.”

The court’s ruling calls into question a number of campaign finance disclosure laws. Perhaps even more significant, it also threatens the constitutionality of campaign contribution laws, which are judged under the “exacting scrutiny” standard, too. Lower courts can now find that such laws are not narrowly tailored to prevent corruption or its appearance or do not provide voters with valuable information — two interests the court recognized in the past to justify campaign laws. A requirement to disclose a $200 contribution? A $500 campaign contribution limit? Plaintiffs in future cases are likely to argue that laws targeting small contributions for disclosure or imposing low contribution limits are not “narrowly tailored” enough to deter corruption or give voters valuable information, even if Congress or a state or municipality found such laws necessary.