FROM THE WONDERFUL FOLKS ABOUT TO BRING YOU THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT

From the wonderful folks about to bring you the Voting Rights Act….

Why was I in the basement of the Supreme Court, pushing a handcart of notepads, computer paper, Number Two pencils, portable shredders, ink-jet cartridges, on a mid-October Saturday morning? And who was this courtly, bowed, gray-haired wraith leading me, very solicitously, through corridors and around blind corners, holding doors, and inquiring every few seconds if “Mr. Toobin is having any trouble?”

In an aching, filigreed, tiny private elevator we rose, both of us facing forward.

I knew who I was and what I was doing: my great great grandfather long ago had founded an office supply company on the Hill, not far from Congress. “Franklin Twoben and Sons, Stationer, purveyor to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Most often, my grandson made deliveries.

“Right through here,” said my ghostly guide.

I nodded and pushed through double-doors into an enormous irregular-shaped room, with levels for desks and chairs at odd heights and intervals around a space the size of half a basketball court.

Only one light shone, into which brightness I was directed to lay down my wares, which I was happy to do. I inhaled deeply (my grandson wouldn’t have needed to) and said, “Thank you.” I started towards the doors through which we had come.

“Wait!” came a tremulous female’s voice from the shadows. The sound and the tone seemed almost sorrowful, but the command in the voice was real.

I stopped quickly. Remembering then, I withdrew from my trouser pocket a bill of lading, which I offered into the gloom.

“Mr. Toobin,” said a second voice, this one younger but equally forceful.

I froze.

“We want to explain something to you,” the voice added.

“You are our conduit,” said a light musical voice also hidden.

“Are you computer literate?” asked someone else, quite seriously. “Do you go on youtube? Can you send emails?”

I felt encircled by assassins in the Forum. I nodded.

“Have you knowledge of Citizens United versus the Federal Election Committee?” This voice was sardonic: bold and sharp but well-controlled.

“As much as most people,” I allowed. “It has to do with money and elections.”

“Wrong!” rumbled a different speaker almost instantly.

I did my best to turn towards the last orator, for I felt certain that that was what he must be.

“It has to do with Freedom!” the man pronounced.

Momentarily I wished to be able to see my panel of peers.

“And you have written unkindly about our deliberations,” added a new voice.

I began to understand what this interview was concocted to do. Instinctively, it made me smile. I was about to be convicted of censorship. What tack would the real Mr. Toobin take, I wondered. Deferential, dodgy, informed but malleable?

“We work very hard,” said a tremulous male voice. “We are often misunderstood.”

Way back after World War II, I had been able to attend George Washington University for a term or two before the family coffers showed their bottoms. Living in D.C., and engaged as we were in the greater legal picture, I had never lost a passing interest in what the Court did or proposed.

“Do you agree,” asked a distant, cool voice, “that we concluded that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption? That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt? And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy?”

I coughed and stalled.

“Or that,” a woman’s voice continued, clear and direct, “the Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers? By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker’s voice.”

“I doubt one could call a major corporation disadvantaged,” I said somewhat hesitantly.

“Then you’re not the man to help us,” offered a high, nasal man’s voice. “We want the nation to understand. Political speech is so ingrained in this country’s culture that speakers find ways around campaign finance laws.”

“The more speech the better,” declared a rather gruff presence in the room.

“Federal service should depend upon meritorious performance rather than political service….The corporate independent expenditures at issue in this case, however, would not interfere with governmental functions, so these cases are inapposite.”

I wanted to argue. Instead I bowed my head and waited. Although, in the ensuing few seconds of dark silence it occurred to me that certainly some would interfere with government, insofar as they were imagined, drafted, and written by corporate interests.

Another speaker, one as yet unallied, suggested reasonably that “The Buckley Court recognized a ‘sufficiently important’ governmental interest in “the prevention of corruption and the appearance of corruption…This followed from the Court’s concern that large contributions could be given to ‘secure a political quid pro quo.’”

I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. What besides quid pro quos were being discussed?

“Mr. Toobin,” harrumphed a man some distance away, “it’s that sense of humor to which we object. Can it!”

I did my best. I also chose that moment to begin to withdraw. In so doing I purposely turned my cart one complete rotation so that the tribunal could see their error. “Franklin Twoben, Stationer, purveyor to the U.S. Supreme Court.” I laid my goods neatly in two piles and withdrew the cart from under them.

“Naturally, you can see, can you not, that the statute is not limited to corporations or associations created in foreign countries or funded predominantly by foreign shareholders? It would be overbroad even if the court were to recognize a compelling governmental interest in limiting foreign influence over the Nation’s political process.”

At this I could not even nod agreement.

The dulcit tone of the very first speaker returned, reasonably and slowly, no doubt speaking less to me than to her colleagues. “Austin found a compelling governmental interest in ‘preventing the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and ‘that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s ideas.’”

I could hear the italics in her voice.

She paused before continuing. “The Buckley Court, nevertheless, sustained limits on direct contributions in order to ensure against the reality or appearance of corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate…Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.”

With my cart under control although not, I regret to admit, my temper, I wheeled for the exit.

Grateful this interview was in camera, yet fully aware this might be Franklin Twoben and Sons’ last appearance in the venue, I couldn’t stop myself.

“Where do you people live?”

What I heard as I walked away was a cacophony of several voices, all speaking at once, all still arguing the same decision.

“The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their roles in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”

“Bull-hockey,” murmured a man in the dark.

“Puckey, Sam!” another man shouted over the echo of my footsteps. “Bull-puckey!”

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29 thoughts on “FROM THE WONDERFUL FOLKS ABOUT TO BRING YOU THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT

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