Dark Money Judicial Influence Examined in Senate

Senators seemed in agreement during a hearing Wednesday to root out anonymous political donations to nominees of the judicial branch.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., speaks at a 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The deluge of dark money flooding the American judicial system and those who funnel and direct that funding, all were examined at length Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

As he has warned for years, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island outlined that “huge gouts of anonymized money by covert political influence” were adversely affecting the American judicial system. 

Groups like the Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network were putting their thumb on the scale through those donations, helping to steer major Republican judicial appointments to those sympathetic to conservative views.

“An entire new political infrastructure has been set up in our country to manage the dark money cascade and to hide the donors,” Whitehouse said. “It is a multi-hundred-million-dollar covert operation, and it has unleashed in our republic more than a billion dollars spent in political dark money, resulting in what has been called a tsunami of slime.”

Whitehouse was willing to admit that, while the influence for years was largely Republican, Democratic dark money had also caught up — with groups like Arabella Advisors and the Tides Foundation playing a mirroring role with some Democratic Party members.

“Now, Republican colleagues have faced massive attacks leveled through Democratic front groups,” Whitehouse said. “So perhaps this slime machine can be a bipartisan concern.”

Wednesday’s hearing focused specifically on that dark money’s influence on the judicial branch of government. Lisa Graves, a senior fellow at the Center for Media & Democracy, testified Wednesday that the U.S. Supreme Court had been engulfed in dark, untraceable funds.

“Over the past decade special interests have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into sophisticated campaigns to influence judicial nominations, judicial decisions and judges themselves, through a dizzying array of dark money nonprofits and limited liability corporations,” Graves said. “As [Centers for Media & Democracy]’s Executive Director Arn Pearson has noted, that tsunami of cash is not a positive sign of civic engagement, it is an exercise in raw power.”

Ben Jealous, a former Maryland gubernatorial candidate who heads the nonprofit People for the American Way, noted that the Supreme Court as directed by Chief Justice John Roberts had been one of judicial activism. Specifically through its landmark Citizens United dispute, the pro-corporate court nixed Congress’ ability to protect elections from unlimited spending and unlimited donations.

That and other rulings had helped corporate power by aiding that flood of money and secret spending, Jealous said. The chief justice’s rulings had an even greater effect on the rights of workers and the corporations they worked for.

Wednesday’s hearing was largely bipartisan albeit one moment of tension between Jealous and John Kennedy, who is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on federal courts. The Louisiana Republican asked Jealous to elaborate on comments he had made suggesting that Roberts had been influenced in specific court rulings because of who his donors were.

But Jealous said his comments were only meant to suggest there was a “rigged system.”

“You’ve made some pretty serious allegations, now are you saying that … the Chief Justice is voting the way he’s voting because of this dark money and corporate money?” Kennedy asked.

“In part, sir,” Jealous replied.

Whitehouse said Wednesday he was interested in finding a bipartisan way to ferret out the identities of dark money donors on both sides of the aisle. The issue was of greater importance than rotten partisanship between Republicans and Democrats, he said.

“What is a lot more rotten than the partisanship between us is the influence that nobody sees because nobody knows who is behind the money,” Whitehouse said. “And I don’t care which side that comes down, it is wrong; and I want to work with anybody who is willing to do that to try and get rid of that stuff — it is a poison in our democracy.”

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