Does the First Amendment Protect Payment for Access?

 As many readers of this blog know, U.S. law on whether (or when) campaign donations can be proscribed by criminal anticorruption statutes is quite complicated, and to some degree unsettled. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has held that campaign contributions are constitutionally protected “speech” under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, U.S. criminal law can and does prohibit campaign donations that are the “quid” in a classic quid pro quo bribery transaction. In other words, it would unconstitutional for the U.S. to prohibit campaign donations to politicians even if such a prohibition is motivated by the generalized worry that politicians might show special solicitude to the interests of their big donors. But it is perfectly constitutional for Congress to prohibit quid pro quo transactions in which a private interest offers a campaign donation as the “quid” in exchange for some “quo.”

It remains an open question, however, what can qualify as the “quo.” Certainly passing legislation, directing federal funding, and securing special regulatory benefits and exceptions would suffice. But what about mere access — an understanding between the donor and elected official that a campaign contribution will get the donor special access to the official? Two recent Supreme Court opinions — Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC — contain language suggesting that it might be unconstitutional for U.S. law to prohibit an explicit quid pro quo agreement in which a politician offers access in exchange for campaign contributions. According to Citizens United, “[i]ngratiation and access . . . are not corruption,” while McCutcheon cautioned that “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies or the political access such support may afford” (emphasis added).

Despite this suggestive language, the Supreme Court has not yet had to confront head-on the question of whether the First Amendment protects quid pro quo payment-for-access. The closest it came was last year in United States v. McDonnell (discussed on the blog here, here, and here). In that case, Governor McDonnell helped to arrange meetings between businessman Jonnie Williams and government officials, and accepted personal gifts from Mr. Williams in exchange. By a vote of 7-0, the McDonnell Court reversed the governor’s conviction and construed the federal bribery statute at issue not to cover the governor’s conduct.

But this doesn’t resolve the constitutional question. McDonnell turned on the construction of the existing federal anti-bribery statute, which requires that the “quo” be an “official act,” which the Court construed narrowly as excluding provision of mere access. Moreover, McDonnell was not a First Amendment case, as the alleged bribes were not campaign contributions. Nonetheless, the Court did discuss the concept of corruption in a manner reminiscent of its opinions in Citizens United and McCutcheon. According to McDonnell: “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. . . . The Government’s position [that McDonnell violated the law] could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if [a donor] had given a campaign contribution in the past . . . . Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.” Furthermore, McCutcheon — which was a First Amendment case — defined the sort of corruption that could justify restrictions on campaign donations as “a direct exchange of an official act for money” (emphasis added), which might imply that, at least in the campaign donation context, McDonnell’s reading of the anti-bribery statute is constitutionally required.

But is that right? Separate from the question of whether Congress should criminalize payment-for-access, and from the question of whether Congress has in fact done so in the existing federal anti-bribery statutes, is the question of whether Congress could criminally proscribe payment-for-access if it wanted to. In other words, is payment-for-access constitutionally protected? Though some of the Supreme Court’s recent language has suggested such a conclusion, I believe that proposition is wrong, for three reasons:

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“Draining the Swamp” – How President Trump is making true on his promise

“Drain the swamp” was one of Donald Trump’s battle cries in the election. Many writers on this and many other blogs have expressed deep skepticism that Trump has any interest in fighting corruption, and assert to the contrary that Trump seems poised to preside over one of the most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. But that’s not how Trump’s core supporters see things. In their view, Trump is making good on his promise and weeding out the deeply connected interests of US government officials, businesses, media, and civil society—what they view as the “corruption” of U.S. institutions. While most readers of this blog probably find that perspective baffling, it is important for all of us to understand how this constituency thinks about the problem of “corruption” and interprets the reporting on President Trump’s administration in light of that perception.

When Trump’s core supporters think about “corruption” in the U.S.—when they think about the “swamp” that Trump promised to drain—they focus on an alleged cabal of elitist, neoconservative, and liberal interests that are fighting a “war against Trump,” the democratically elected President. The term that is increasingly used in these circles to describe the “swamp” is “Deep State.” The Deep State is, according to Breitbart news, “jargon for the semi-hidden army of bureaucrats, officials, retired officials, legislators, contractors and media people who support and defend established government policies.” (The Wikipedia article on Deep State was only published on Jan 7, 2016, showing the novelty and fast rise of this term). In this worldview, the Deep State was, for example, responsible for the dismissal of national security advisor Michael Flynn. Blame for the dismissal, on this account, lies not with the actions of Michael Flynn, but with the “traitors” in government, collaborating with the corrupt mainstream media (“MSM”)—a view shared by the President himself in a tweet on Feb 15, 2016: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American!” Indeed, the view that the MSM is a major colluder in the corruption that protects the powerful and wealthy is another important feature of the worldview that seems widely shared by Trump’s ardent supporters. The list of corrupt traitors to the American people who are part of this “Deep State” includes the Democratic Party, various Republicans who criticize Trump (such as Bill Kristol, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and after the unsuccessful attempt to repeal Obamacare Paul Ryan), and the judiciary (see here and here).

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CREW’s Long-Shot Emoluments Clause Lawsuit Against Trump: Calculated Risk or Reckless Gamble?

After the events of the last ten days, worrying about the potential conflicts of interest created by the Trump organization’s business dealings with foreign governments seems almost quaint. It appears that under the Trump Administration, constitutional crises don’t get resolved, they just get overshadowed by bigger constitutional crises; such are the strange times in which we live. But I did want to return to the topic I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, concerning the pending lawsuit brought by the Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleging that the Trump Organization’s business relationships with foreign governments violate the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause. In my post a couple of weeks ago, I predicted that U.S. courts are likely to toss the suit out on jurisdictional grounds, without reaching the merits of the claim. That assessment appears to be shared by the overwhelming majority of legal experts who have weighed in (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), though the consensus is not quite universal.

Several people have suggested to me that even if the suit has little chance of success, it was good that CREW filed it. They’ve offered two arguments for this assessment: First, even if there’s only a very small chance of success, the costs of bringing the suit are relatively low, and the benefits if the suit does end up succeeding are enormous—so what’s the harm in trying? Second, the mere act of filing the suit, even if it’s ultimately dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, will generate attention to the underlying constitutional and ethical issues, and help both educate and mobilize the citizenry. My colleague Larry Tribe, who is one of the parties who filed the CREW brief, laid out this position clearly and succinctly in an interview shortly after the brief was filed:

Litigation can help bring important principles to light… It helps me teach my students, and it performs an educational function vis-à-vis the public. Of course, I don’t take on causes that I feel confident I will lose purely for educational purposes. But win or lose, we’re going to help educate the public on something that’s very important.

Much as I wish those arguments were true, and much as I wish the CREW lawsuit had some chance of succeeding, I respectfully and reluctantly disagree. I hope that events will prove me wrong, but at the moment I fear that CREW’s decision to file this lawsuit was not only a long shot, but was a serious tactical blunder that will probably hurt the cause overall. Continue reading

Cash Crunch: How Will India’s Supreme Court Respond to Modi’s Radical Move?

Last November 8th, the same day the United States elected a kleptocrat to its highest office, an executive on the other side of the world—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—launched what Larry Summers called “the most sweeping change in currency policy that has occurred anywhere in the world for decades.” Prime Minister Modi’s surprise “demonetization” drive gave citizens fifty days to exchange all 500 and 1000 rupee notes (valued at about 8 and 15 USD respectively). Modi’s radical move, which will remove approximately 86% of all currency in circulation, is an attempt to combat endemic petty corruption, money laundering, terrorist financing, and tax   evasion (only 2% of Indians pay income tax). Prime Minister Modi was elected on an anticorruption platform in 2014, and pledged during his campaign to target hidden cash (so-called “black money”). Yet the demonetization campaign came as a surprise. Indeed, it probably had to be a surprise, lest those hiding fortunes in cash would have been able to prepare for the policy change.

While the Indian public generally supports aggressive anticorruption efforts, it would be hard to exaggerate the disruption resulting from demonetization. The real estate and wedding industries run largely on cash, as do most small businesses. And the demonetization program has hit regular citizens hard: People have been waiting in lines for hours to exchange their cash, which can be especially difficult for the four-fifths of women who don’t have a bank account. In the short term, consumption, the stock market, and growth forecasts have all plummeted and the agricultural sector is expected to suffer as well. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged the campaign would cause pain for many honest people, but believed it was worth it, stating that black money and “corruption are the biggest obstacles in eradicating poverty.” (Since then, the official justification for the campaign appears to have shifted to an attack on the cash economy as a whole, rather than a campaign against black money specifically.)

The fate of the demonetization program now lies with India’s judiciary: Continue reading

When Should We Put Anticorruption Agencies in the Constitution?

To fight corruption more effectively, many countries have created specialized government institutions that focus primarily on corruption issues. Most common are specialized anticorruption agencies (ACAs) with investigative and/or prosecutorial functions, although some countries have also created specialized anticorruption courts, special coordinating bodies, or other entities. This trend has generated a great deal of debate, both about whether to create such specialized bodies at all and about how they should be designed (for example, whether ACAs should combine prosecutorial and investigative power). Absent from much of this debate, however, is a discussion of the means countries should use to create these specialized bodies—in particular, whether these specialized anticorruption bodies should be enshrined in the nation’s constitution, or should be created by ordinary law.

Anticorruption bodies vary quite a bit on the extent to which they are constitutionalized. Most existing ACAs and other anticorruption institutions—including many considered highly successful—are not mandated by the constitution. For example, Indonesia’s anticorruption agency (the KPK) and its anticorruption courts (the Tipikor courts) were created by ordinary legislation, as was Belgium’s anticorruption investigation body and Spain’s anticorruption prosecutor’s office. However, in other countries specialized anticorruption bodies are explicitly established (or required) by the constitution. For example, the Philippines’ anticorruption court, the Sandiganbayan, is enshrined in that country’s 1987 constitution. Indeed, the trend (if one can be discerned) seems to be in the direction of constitutionalization. Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted in 2014, includes a specialized anticorruption investigation body. Egypt’s 2014 constitution similarly includes a specialized anticorruption prosecutor. Mexico’s 2015 amendments constitutionalized three types of anticorruption agencies (investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial), as well as a coordinating body.

But should these agencies be constitutionalized? And if so, when? Continue reading

A “Paradigm Shift” in Mexican Anticorruption Law?

Problems of corruption and graft are not new in Mexico. Recently, the Mexican elite political class has been implicated in a series of real estate scandals that reached all the way to President Peña Nieto. Most notably, President Nieto and his wife have been accused of impropriety in their purchase of a 7 million dollar mansion—dubbed by the press “la Casa Blanca” (“the White House”)—from a wealthy government contractor. While not directly related, Nieto’s presidency has also been rocked by protests surrounding the disappearance and presumed death of 43 students in Guerrero. Local officials appear to have been involved in the disappearances, and the official investigation is widely viewed to have been botched.

But in the midst of all this (and arguably because it), Mexico managed to pass one of the most sweeping anticorruption reforms in recent memory. In April and May of last year, the Mexican legislature passed and the state legislatures approved reforms to 14 articles of the Mexican Constitution. Conceived of and spurred on by Mexican civil society groups, these reforms bolstered existing anticorruption institutions and created whole new ones.

The reaction to these reforms has ranged from excitement and enthusiasm, to cautious optimism, to cynical dismissal. (President Nieto, for his part, has hailed them as a “paradigm shift” in the Mexican fight against corruption.) These changes to Mexico’s constitution are only the first step in the country’s much needed systemic reform. Their success will depend substantially on secondary enabling laws to be enacted sometime before June 2016. But it’s worth stopping now to analyze what these reforms get right, and what they fail to address.

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