Early on Wednesday morning, inside the stuffy chambers of the United States Supreme Court, a man stood up in a crowd of 330 citizens to address the nation’s nine top judges. He wasn’t scheduled to give testimony, and wasn’t a certified legal expert with credentials to present an oral argument in the Supreme Court. His interruption of Supreme Court proceedings would be the first in eight years, and only the second in two decades. And for the first time ever, a citizen speaking freely inside the Supreme Court chamber was caught on video.
“I rise on behalf of the majority of the American people, who believe that money is not speech, corporations are not people, and our democracy should not be for sale to the highest bidder. Overturn Citizens United. Keep the cap in McCutcheon. The people demand democracy,” said Kai Newkirk of the organization 99Rise, before being hauled out of the courtroom and handcuffed. As of this writing, Newkirk is still in jail on charges of “haranguing” and uttering “loud threatening or abusive language" in the Supreme Court building.
Newkirk’s outburst preceded oral arguments for the McCutcheon vs. FEC case, which has been called “Citizens United, Part 2.” Shaun McCutcheon, C.E.O. of the mining industry-focused engineering company Coalmont Electrical Development, is the plaintiff in the case. McCutcheon, of Birmingham, Ala., donated $16,250 to the Alabama Republican Party in 2012. His company has donated to the campaigns of the most obstructionist Republicans in the US Senate, including top Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, who is credited with initiating the federal government shutdown of 2013. The latest oral arguments for McCutcheon vs. FEC were presented in October. It’s also worth noting that the Republican National Committee has joined McCutcheon in his lawsuit, along with Mitch McConnell himself, whose team of lawyers will be making arguments to the Supreme Court on McConnell’s behalf.
In January of 2010, Citizens United vs. FEC ruled that political contributions are an expression of free speech, allowing corporations to make unlimited political donations. Corporations were given the same rights as people after the Union Pacific Railroad vs. Santa Clara County ruling in 1886. Citizens United also paved the way for the creation of Super PACs – political entities that place no limits to how much one person can give at one time. McCutcheon argues because corporations are people and money is speech, aggregate limits for political contributions from individual citizens are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
"The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision was a betrayal of the American people and of our democracy. It took the systemic corruption of our government by big money interests to an obscene new level,” 99Rise wrote in a press release. “If the Court eliminates the cap on aggregate donations by an individual in an election cycle - the question at hand in the McCutcheon case - it would put another round of shots into the dying body of our democracy."
Individuals can currently donate a maximum of $2,600 per candidate, per election cycle. These rules were put in place in 1974 with the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act, which created the Federal Election Commission. The current aggregate limit is $46,200 for all federal candidates in a 2-year period, and $70,800 to political action committees and political party committees. This means that Shaun McCutcheon can donate the maximum amount to a maximum of 18 different federal candidates in an election cycle. If the Supreme Court rules in McCutcheon’s favor, McCutcheon and other big donors like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson would be able to donate larger amounts to an even greater pool of candidates.
The most ironic thing about this entire episode is that while the Supreme Court portrays themselves to be defenders of constitutional rights like free speech, they have arcane rules in place that don’t allow cameras inside their chambers, that require observers to be seated and silent at all times, and that allow for the arrest of anyone who protests on the front steps of the Supreme Court or speaks during hearings.
Kai Newkirk’s arrest illustrated exactly how much the original concept of democracy has been perverted in today’s United States. A corporation can donate an unlimited amount of money to a Super PAC and flood public airwaves with deliberately dishonest attack ads under the guise of “free speech,” but citizens nonviolently exercising those same rights are immediately handcuffed and thrown in jail.
"Generations of Americans have shed blood, sweat, and tears to win the right to vote and extend the promise of democracy in America,” Newkirk said in the 99Rise press release. “It's time for our generation to step up and do whatever it takes to defend that right and end the corruption of big money in politics. If that means risking arrest in order to speak truth to power, so be it."