CIR’s television documentary Justice for Sale, a 1999 co-production with Frontline and Bill Moyers as correspondent, receives a timely rebroadcast on the February 19, 2010 edition of Bill Moyers’ Journal (in an edited version revised to fit the Bill Moyers’ Journal format). It is timely because Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently cast the key swing vote in a Supreme Court decision freeing up business and special interest contributions to political campaigns. In the 1999 Justice for Sale broadcast, Kennedy told Moyers of his deep concern about the negative effect of contributions in state judicial elections and warned they can cause the perception or reality that judicial independence is undermined.
Clearly Justice Kennedy’s concerns for judicial elections do not bridge the divide between his warning on that issue and his free-swinging approach to political campaign contributions as shown in his opinion announced last month in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which erased two of the court’s precedents and decades of legislative restrictions on corporate and special interest spending in political campaigns. Now it’s up to the legislative branch to go back to the drawing board and attempt to design new campaign finance laws that will create the public perception or political reality that Congress and the President are not the captives of special interests and the highest bidder.
Justice for Sale is one example in a long line of CIR work that examines the influence of special interests and campaign cash on public affairs. Award-winning Frontline documentaries The Best Campaign Money Can Buy (1992) and So You Want to Buy a President? (1996) examined presidential campaigns. A series of stories in Salon.com in 2004 and 2005 examined the influence of corporate and special interests on the federal judicial nomination process: “Courting Big Business,” “Big Biz Battles for Bush’s Bench,” “The Moneyed Scales of Justice,” and “Harriet Miers Is All Business.” Other stories have looked at issues ranging from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R.Ky) fundraising methods to how local real estate contributions affect zoning and health and safety issues.
Perhaps the one sure bet to come out of the Supreme Court decision to free up special interest money in political campaigns: CIR reporters and others will have their hands full trying to keep up with the resulting stories.
Dan Noyes was executive producer for CIR for Justice for Sale. He is a co-founder of CIR and for 30 years was on CIR’s staff as a reporter, then editor, and served three stints as executive director or acting executive director.