Sheldon Whitehouse fights to end dark money in Supreme Court


  • Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is fighting to end the “black money” that he says plagues the Supreme Court.
  • The Rhode Island Democrat refers to private groups using anonymous donations to defend their interests in the highest court.
  • Whitehouse spoke with Insider in a recent interview to discuss his perspective.

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For the ninth time this year, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse this week delivered a speech denouncing the anonymous right-wing donors who he says have “captured” the Supreme Court and “built” his current Conservative 6-3 majority.

“Our Supreme Court is inundated with black money influence,” the Rhode Island Democrat said in the Senate Tuesday. “The American people may not be able to see all the rot, but they can see enough to know that something is rotten over there across First Street in this yard.”

Unlike some in his party, Whitehouse avoided reform ideas such as adding more seats on the bench or setting term limits for judges. Instead, the three-term senator vehemently lobbied for financial transparency in the third branch of government to expose how it has been swayed by a far-right conservative agenda.

Whitehouse, who chairs a key Senate Judiciary Committee panel, calls it a three-pronged “agenda” – private groups use anonymous donations to prepare Supreme Court candidates, promote and defend those candidates with political advertising campaigns and later try to influence those judges in legal briefs filed without any financial disclosure.

“If it’s the same people who paid for it all, especially if it’s the same people who fund politicians, then it becomes not only a problem, but potentially toxic,” Whitehouse, 66, said in a recent interview with Insider. .

According to the senator’s findings, the effect of this operation plays out during the tenure of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who has rendered at least 80 partisan decisions that advance Conservative interests.

“It’s a terrible record,” Whitehouse said.

‘The system of government’

When Whitehouse first began investigating the matter years ago, he “had a general feeling that things had gone off the rails” in the Supreme Court and wanted to do some research to show “just how much of the vested interest lurked behind it. ‘black money had been able to exercise their power,’ he told Insider.

In a report published last year by the Harvard Journal on Legislation, Whitehouse presented his evidence for the black money trail by highlighting key Supreme Court decisions that have won victories for the Tories. These decisions included allowing unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns, reversing union rights and weakening voting rights.

Supreme Court of the United States

The United States Supreme Court on September 25, 2021.

Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images


The trend is only continuing, according to Whitehouse. What he finds most disturbing is the increase in the number of legal briefs, known as amicus briefs, which are filed without any financial disclosure to convince judges to rule a certain way.

“The court rule claims that you cannot hide behind a front group. There is hardly any other situation in court where someone is allowed to enter without identifying themselves, and yet there is a blatant non-enforcement of this rule, and it deprives the public of seeing the coordination between the bogus front groups, ”Whitehouse said, adding that he“ doesn’t understand why the court isn’t cleaning this up itself ”.

During the current mandate, hundreds of briefs related to a multitude of contentious cases have been filed with the Supreme Court. A heavily watched case over a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy has drawn dozens of submissions expressing support for or opposition to the law.

“We are seeing in real time this anonymous vector of influence unfolding in huge numbers on these political matters and it is just a rotten site that a court can present to the country,” Whitehouse said.

Democrats silenced the Supreme Court

According to experts, how the Conservatives have gained greater control over the Supreme Court and the federal justice system as a whole takes years.

For decades, Republicans have viewed the courts as a method of maintaining political power, creating conservative lawyers and judges, and empowering conservative groups like the Federalist Society. Using this backbone, former President Donald Trump has occupied more than 200 court seats with Tories.

“They focused on the less democratic branch, the one that does not respond to voters, the one that could impose its will behind ropes, as a vehicle to impose its ideology on the American people,” according to Whitehouse.

Yet Whitehouse acknowledges that at the same time that Republicans cultivated this strategy, Democrats just weren’t paying enough attention to it.

“Democrats have ignored the Supreme Court for a long time and are now receiving a wake-up call,” he said.

Although the senator says the tribunal is currently fueled by conservative black money groups, anonymous political donations do indeed go both ways. Democrats actually raised more funds from black money than Republicans in the 2020 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.

And now the Democrats, who are in the majority, control the judicial confirmation process. So far in his tenure, President Joe Biden has appointed 28 federal judges.

Amy Coney Barrett

Justice Amy Coney Barrett was President Donald Trump’s third appointment to the Supreme Court.

Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images


Whitehouse weighed in on partisan reality and told Insider that at the end of the day, “whatever rule we should impose to clean up this mess should apply completely regardless of party or point of view.”

Americans have seen the politics surrounding the Supreme Court and formed negative impressions of the institution. A new Quinnipiac University poll released Friday found that more than 6 in 10 Americans say the Supreme Court is primarily driven by politics. This follows the Supreme Court’s all-time low public approval ratings, with some justices speaking publicly in recent months in an attempt to restore public trust.

“This is one of the things that really tears me apart because on the one hand, the best thing for this country would be a United States Supreme Court that everyone would trust and be proud of, and that seemed to stay in his lanes form, ”Whitehouse said.“ But on the other hand, once it becomes obvious, as to me, that the Emperor has no clothes here, it’s just as important to call it because a court which masquerades as an ordinary court, but which is in fact a prisoner vehicle for great special interests, is the most dangerous. “

“They are just trying to silence me”

Whitehouse pursued several avenues to overhaul the system. He tried to push forward legislation that would improve financial transparency in government and the courts, but little progress was made. A bill he wrote to tackle the problem was included in Democratic voting and election legislation, but Republicans blocked it last month.

Besides Congress, Whitehouse also called on the White House to examine the role of black money in the Supreme Court. This week, he and three Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Biden’s Supreme Court commission to do just that, after the group released a draft report last month that did not address the subject.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Whitehouse said. “The fact that they couldn’t even tackle this problem was hard to accept.”

There are also some areas that the Supreme Court can easily deal with on its own, including establishing codes of ethics for judges, financial disclosure of amicus briefs, and reporting on gifts and hospitality that judges receive, according to Whitehouse.

Critics have criticized Whitehouse’s views on the country’s highest court as disrespectful and flawed, with some condemning them as conspiracy theories or myths. Others said Whitehouse just wanted to rewrite the rules because the court didn’t make decisions to his liking.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote in March that Whitehouse’s quest had “undermined judicial independence and restricted the rights of private First Amendment citizens to influence their government.”

In testimony at a committee hearing chaired by Whitehouse the same month, a legal expert reiterated these points and argued that the recent trend in Supreme Court rulings is not a consequence of the influence of the right, but a consequence of the judicial philosophy of judges. .

“Rather than tackling the merits of their decisions on the merits or, where appropriate, seeking to reform the relevant laws at issue in contested court decisions, critics of the Supreme Court prefer to demonize judges and implicate motivations harmful “, Jonathan Adler, professor of law. at Case Western Reserve University, said.

Often the only member of Congress regularly voicing the “project,” Whitehouse stands firm in his beliefs and vows to continue to promote and fight for them.

“The problem I have with a lot of counterattacks is that they’re just name calling that doesn’t resolve the issues I’ve identified,” Whitehouse said. “When I see this, it only confirms my opinion that they can’t stand up for what they’ve done. They’re just trying to silence me.”

“Why would they want to do this if they weren’t trying to protect a court they had captured? ” he added.


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