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2011-01-21

On Anniversary of Citizens United Ruling, Common Cause Calls on Justice Dept. to Investigate Scalia and Thomas over Conflicts of Interest

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Today marks the one-year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending on election campaigns. We speak with Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, which has filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Justice urging it to investigate whether Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas should have recused themselves from the case last year because of a conflict of interest. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today marks the one-year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The ruling lifted a 63-year-old ban prohibiting corporations, trade associations and unions from spending unlimited amounts of money on political advocacy. A number of national and local organizations are planning rallies across the country today to protest the decision.

On Thursday, the watchdog group Common Cause filed a petition with the Justice Department urging it to investigate whether Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas should have recused themselves from the case last year because of a conflict of interest. Common Cause alleges that both justices were paid guests at exclusive gatherings organized by Koch Industries, where conservative business leaders and elected officials secretly strategized around elections. The justices were among those who provided the critical votes in the 5-4 ruling, a ruling that has prompted an unprecedented flood of corporate expenditures on electoral campaigns over the last year.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Edgar is the president of Common Cause and a former congressman from Pennsylvania. He’s joining us now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now! What are you doing today about Citizens United? I mean, it was handed down by the Supreme Court.

BOB EDGAR: Well, as you know, Amy, we filed a petition with the Justice Department to have them investigate Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas in terms of conflict of interest. You’ll recall that just one year ago, by a five-to-four vote, the Supreme Court, believing that corporations are people, voted to give them the ability to dip into their corporate treasuries and spend that on independent expenditures on campaigns. Over the course of this year, we’ve discovered that Justice Scalia, in 2007, and Justice Thomas, in 2008, attended a special workshop seminar sponsored by the Koch brothers, who run the second-largest private industry in the United States, and it just seemed odd to us that these two justices would have their way paid to this special conference and then, on the Citizens United case, which could have been decided on just the very narrow grounds of the issues that were brought before the Court, decided to break that open and end a ruling that had been in place for over 60 years to prevent corporations from dipping in and playing politics.

Our concern is that the Citizens United case has exponentially increased the amount of money that is being spent on campaigns. It, further, is putting corporate interests above the public’s interest, and it needs to be reversed. We’re working with groups who think that it’s possible to get a constitutional amendment. We think that’s in the long term. We’re working with others who believe that changing the makeup of the Court would help to reverse this awful decision. If Sandra Day O’Connor had still been on the Court, this decision would have been five to four in the other direction. So it’s a very narrow decision.

We think the Justice Department ought to investigate the conflict of interest. Remember that the Justice Department was on the side of the people against the final decision that came down. And Eric Holder, as a lawyer, has a responsibility to investigate conflicts of interest. If they do find that there is fire where we see smoke, then he has the responsibility of asking the Solicitor General to go to Justice Roberts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and ask them to investigate and see whether there are any remedies. And what we’re really asking is that they vacate the Citizens United decision and that Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas recuse themselves from working on that decision.

One final thing, Justice Thomas is of particular concern to us. His wife, Virginia Thomas, was the leader of something called Liberty Central. That was an organization formed to work on behalf of ultra-conservative political leaders, mostly Republicans, and she appeared in the newspaper as saying that she believed that that group could make a difference, and they could take corporate money for the first time in recent memory. We think that particular conflict of interest should have been acknowledged by Justice Thomas and that there really is an interest there where she is benefiting from something that her husband was the deciding vote on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bob Edgar, to a lot of people, this seems like a longshot complaint that you’re filing here. What are the — currently, the regulations in terms of among federal judges, in terms of conflicts of interest and recusing themselves from particular cases, as far as you know? And who monitors that?

BOB EDGAR: Well, unfortunately, the justices monitor their own behavior, and there are not clear procedures. If you’re sitting on a regular federal bench, there are rules and regulations about recusing oneself. But at the Supreme Court level, they sometimes choose to ignore that. I’m very proud of Justice Kagan, who has recused herself on issues that she was only narrowly related to because she was the Solicitor General. And there are instances where the justices have stepped forward and have been courageous and voluntarily recused themselves.

But we think that particularly Scalia and Thomas need to recognize the appearance of impropriety. Here is two of the justices going to a partisan, political, conservative seminar and then coming back to the Court and voting on something that was discussed at that seminar. So, we hope that as a result of our putting this before the Justice Department, putting it out in the media, that it will put enough pressure on the Court to clean up their procedures and make sure that as we move forward on some very difficult issues, that the justices will in fact act in the public’s interest and not on the interest of narrow special interests, as we think happened in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Edgar, can you explain more just who Charles and David Koch are and their significance in funding the Tea Party and in the massive amounts of money that have gone into elections?

BOB EDGAR: Well, Charles and David Koch have, for 30 years, been at the heart of funding ultra-conservative operations across the country — think tanks and candidates — to try to get government controlled and operated for corporate interests as opposed to the public’s interest. And there’s a great deal of information out there about the Koch Industries. The New Yorker had an important review.

Just next week, some of us are going out to Palm Springs, because they are having another one of their special seminars, and we’re just going to have a silent witness that what they are doing is not in the best interest of the nation. They are funding and fueling an effort to take power even further away from average, ordinary citizens and place it in the hands of the wealthy, place it in the hands of corporate interest. And they have just been very destructive in our political process — along with others. There’s a whole host of moneyed interests that are fueling our campaigns. You know, very few of your listeners believe that before the Citizens United case a year ago, that corporations didn’t have power, that labor unions didn’t have power in Washington. This simply opens up the possibility for excessive power, and it’s all funded by these two brothers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you quantify some of the impact already of the Citizens United case, in terms of how it’s already affected the most recent elections?

BOB EDGAR: Well, in this most recent election, corporations were able to invest in targeted districts, and we saw the House go from Democrat to Republican. And in large measure, attack ads, TV commercials, that were for and against particular candidates, for the first time in history could be paid for by the Chamber of Commerce and by corporations. And because Congress didn’t step in and successfully pass what was called the DISCLOSE Act — and that’s another story — the DISCLOSE Act would have given all of us the opportunity, first, to know who was making those contributions, but secondly, would have prohibited foreign corporations from investing, which they now can do. Federal contractors, big Boeing Vertol, could get a large defense contract and now take some of that money and spend it on political campaigns. And we saw an exponential rise in how much money was spent in just this midterm.

One of our big fears is, what’s going to happen in the 2012 election? Suppose a rogue corporation decides they want to get involved in politics, and they want to, on day one, put a billion dollars behind a particular candidate. There’s nothing that anyone can do about that, because the Supreme Court has said corporations are people, they’re covered under the freedom of speech provisions of the Constitution, they can do that. We think, at Common Cause, that that is a mistake, and we’ll just see the exponential increase of this. There was a humorist who suggested that Congress people wear uniforms like race car drivers and have patches on it that show BP and Exxon and healthcare industry and insurance companies, so that you could actually see how much money is flowing into the system. While that is a humorous thought, it has some reality in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, hasn’t it already been said that President Obama hopes to raise over a billion dollars for the 2012 presidential election?

BOB EDGAR: Well, I’m glad you raise that. Common Cause, working with a whole bunch of other groups, are interested in public financing. We installed that in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut. We worked very hard in the last Congress to try to get it passed for the House and Senate, to allow for small contributions to be made, but for elected officials to voluntarily not take any special interest money.

There is a presidential public financing system, which is broken. It was broken in the '08 election. And we're rather disappointed that the White House has not earlier come out with a reform of the presidential public financing system. And now we’re caught in a situation where it’s rumored that next week the House of Representatives, as its second act, will bring up the repeal of the presidential public financing system. We think that system has to be repaired. We think it was broken in '08 and needs to be fixed for the 2012 election. But we would like to see some leadership out of the White House and leadership out of the Congress to renovate and reform and improve the presidential public financing system that has been in place for a long time, make the money adequate, make the timing of giving the public financing out to those candidates who voluntarily accept the system. Let's get on with making it happen, so that we don’t have a rush to raising these billions of dollars for political campaigns, including the presidential campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Former congressman Bob Edgar, we want to thank you very much for being with us, president and CEO of Common Cause.

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