State's Highest Court Upholds Campaign Finance Law Ahead Of Election


Primary day is over, and candidates who made it past this first hurdle now turn their focus to the general election. The amount of money a candidate has at hands often tips the scale in their favor. This makes a recent decision by the state Supreme Judicial Court upholding a limit on political spending all the more relevant heading into November. Rick Green, the Republican nominee for the 3rd District, challenged the state’s ban on corporations donating directly to a candidate’s campaign. Green owns 1A Auto in Pepperell, and he has argued that the ban limits his free speech and unfairly penalizes private businesses when other organizations can directly donate to campaigns. To discuss this case and other major cases in front of the Supreme Judicial Court, WGBH’s Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with legal analyst and Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: Tell us about any notable recent decisions by the SJC. Anything especially significant in recent weeks?

Daniel Medwed: Just a few days ago the SJC released a major opinion on campaign finance. Massachusetts, like the federal government, bans corporations from directly submitting political contributions to campaigns. Nevertheless, two family-owned businesses, an auto parts retailer in Pepperell and a self-storage facility operator in Ashland, filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of this ban, citing the First Amendment — freedom of speech and association as well as equal protection, because these prohibitions don’t apply to unions and nonprofits. The SJC unanimously rejected this challenge, upholding the ban, arguing that if there were no ban, there could be a lot of corruption with politicians, or at least the appearance of corruption, and it could provide an opportunity for people to use corporate entities to circumvent other restrictions on individual campaign contributions.

Mathieu: Our minds immediately go to Citizens United. How does this square with that Supreme Court opinion which basically open the door for corporations to make certain types of political contributions?

Medwed: This opinion is consistent with Citizens United, and here’s why. There’s been a longstanding distinction between direct contributions by corporations to campaigns, which is banned in Massachusetts, at the federal level, and was unaffected by Citizens United, as opposed to so-called independent expenditures. What this means is that you can’t directly contribute to campaigns, you can’t explicitly coordinate with candidates, but you can independently, say, buy ad time to advocate for a candidate, or give money to an independent political action committee. At least that’s the line — a thin one — that’s been drawn by the Supreme Court.

Mathieu: Indeed, a fine line here, as we consider recent developments at the state Supreme Judicial Court. Let’s shift gears to the oral arguments this month. What are the most interesting cases for you on the docket, Daniel?

Medwed: The one that caught my eye is Commonwealth vs. Plast. In this case, the woman was placed on probation for swiping five video games from Wal-Mart. During her probation she violated its terms multiple times largely due to the ill effects of her drug addiction. She has a drug problem. The judge then ultimately imposed a sentence of two years in jail, the maximum allowed for this low-level petty theft offense, and in imposing the sentence the judge said she needs this basically because she requires treatment. She should go to prison or jail so she could get the treatment that she needs. That then led to a very interesting legal issue. Is it appropriate for a judge to explicitly cite a defendant’s need for rehabilitation in devising a jail term?

Mathieu: Well, let’s explore that for a moment, considering the scale of the opioid crisis. We talk about it everyday here. How should the court rule?

Medwed: Well, on the one hand, I’m pretty sympathetic to the defendant’s position, which of course is, this is unfair, that the criminal justice system penalizes and punishes people for their drug addiction all the time. This is just one more indignity on the top of many. But on the other hand, I am mindful of the counterargument, which goes something like this: If in-custody drug treatment could achieve something, sobriety, that any program outside of the jail house gates could not achieve, then should a judge at least be allowed to consider that as an option? It’s heavy handed. Yes, it’s paternalistic. But could it potentially be warranted in some cases? I’m very curious to see how the SJC rules.

Mathieu: It seems like that cuts against the general movement to lock up fewer nonviolent criminals.

Medwed: I think that’s right. There’s certainly been a trend toward getting rid of mass incarceration. But if you think about this as a long-term play, maybe there’s a short-term period of incarceration that could help treat the underlying illness and then the long term consequence would relate to reduced risk of recidivism.

Mathieu: I guess we’re about to find out. Thank you, WGBH News legal analyst and Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed, always appreciate your insights here on WGBH’s Morning Edition.



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