Why One Former Supreme Court Justice Wants to Amend the Constitution

By Alexander Mallin

Apr 30, 2014 1:43pm

In his first appearance in front of Capitol Hill lawmakers in nearly 30 years, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens made a pitch today for a new amendment to the Constitution.

“Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns,” Stevens said in front of a Senate Rules Committee.

The amendment is a proposal he had included in his book “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” published earlier this month.

But the former justice, who retired from the court in 2010, argued his amendment is even more necessary in the wake of the recent McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court struck down aggregate donation caps on campaign contributions on the basis that the limits violated the First Amendment protection of free speech.

Stevens agreed with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in arguing that classifying any amendment as “absolute” would do away with limits on acts like “screaming fire in a crowded movie theater.”

“It is fundamentally wrong to assume that preventing corruption is the only justification for laws limiting the First Amendment rights of candidates and their supporters,” Stevens said.

AP john paul stevens jef 140430 16x9 608 Why One Former Supreme Court Justice Wants to Amend the Constitution

(AP Photo)

Shortly before Stevens took the stand, Schumer announced a plan by Senate Democrats to vote this year on a new constitutional amendment by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that would allow Congress to make laws restricting campaign finance contributions.

“When the Supreme Court or any of my colleagues say that the Koch Brothers’ First Amendment rights are not being heard, it defies common sense and it defies logic,” Schumer said, referring to the influential conservative billionaire industrialists.

But Republican lawmakers struck back against the criticism. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said that any limits placed on campaign finance dealings is a move to silence citizens.

“Every single restriction this body puts in place is designed to do one thing, protect incumbent politicians,” Cruz said.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., argued that even past bills such as the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act, which sought to regulate the financing of political campaigns, should be done away with.

“I, and others who voted against it, did so because we knew it would restrict people’s rights to participate in the political process,” Roberts said. “It would not get money out of the system, but would simply divert it to other avenues.”

But Stevens argued that classifying campaign finance laws in a manner similar to speech could allow for a repeat of past abuses that eroded public trust in government.

“Campaign funds were used to finance the Watergate burglaries, actions that clearly were not protected by the First Amendment,” Stevens said.

The last time Stevens appeared before Congress was in December of 1975 for his confirmation hearings, which lasted three days.

 

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