How Russian hackers helped expose right-wing black money that corrupts our courts

News that came out the same day the Supreme Court heard the arguments in a case – central to what the NRA bluntly called the Republican judges’ ‘plan’ to overthrow gun safety – revealed just how the rot goes deep.

The news came from Russian hackers on the dark web. According to a report by The Trace, hackers unearthed a document suggesting that the NRA paid more than $ 500,000 to a lawyer to litigate on its behalf through the “Independence Institute”. This included filing for pro-gun rights “friend of the court”, or friend, briefs in Supreme Court cases, including one heard earlier this month, submitted by the New York branch of the NRA. None of these payments have been disclosed to the court or to the public. In essence, the NRA has cloned itself to amplify its voice in court.

Judges say their rules protect against this kind of mischief, but this incident is far from isolated. As the Chairman of the House Courts Subcommittee, Hank Johnson and I have repeatedly pointed out, and as I recently detailed for the Yale Law Journal, court rules require only the most immediate expenses associated with producing a friend thesis to be disclosed — a little more than the cost of printing the thesis to be submitted. A black money group or a big industry front, like the NRA, can hide behind a cloak of anonymity and repeatedly speak out in court. In the court’s most recent decision in favor of these black money groups, at least 100 black money groups funded by Koch filed briefs in favor of the plaintiff, a black money organization that is himself an important part of this Koch network.

A problem in themselves, anonymous flotillas friend memories are just eddies on top of a much bigger and more dangerous problem underwater. Wealthy right-wing donors have been funding and coordinating a massive black money operation for years to secure through our federal justice system what they cannot accomplish through democratic elections. With the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo at the heart of this operation, they funneled more than $ 400 million through a network of front groups to guide hand-picked judicial candidates to federal courts, including Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. (The NRA alone spent $ 1 million on advertisements supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation, claiming that Kavanaugh had been chosen “to sever the tie” in the gun rights cases.) With confirmation from their judges, the Right-wing donors fund lawsuits to advance their radical agenda in court. . And finally, as this NRA incident shows, they anonymously fund flotillas of friend briefs to support their arguments and indicate how judges should vote.

This scheme is working. The Roberts Court has rendered more than 80 partisan decisions offering clear gains to the broad interests of Republican donors. In the past two years alone, the Supreme Court has further eroded protections against discriminatory voter suppression laws; created a new constitutional protection for black money; used religious freedom as a club to strike down public health laws protecting against a deadly pandemic; and, more recently, has used his “shadow case” to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion in Texas, at least temporarily. Donors to the program got everything they paid for, and more.

In the same 2019 Supreme Court case in which the NRA apparently funded one of the friend briefs, several Senate colleagues and I filed our own brief urging the court to assert its independence from the scheme. We warned that the American people were not fooled and were beginning to notice the court’s obedience to marching orders from corporate interests, polluters, and partisan donors.

What did the court do in response? He continued as his credibility crumbled. He delivered victory after victory for the donors. Meanwhile, polls have shown a steady decline in public confidence in the court. Despite the ad campaign by judges to convince us otherwise, over 60% of Americans now believe that judges’ votes are influenced more by politics than by law.

The record of 80 to zero is not easily rectified, but there are steps the court and the judiciary could take to heal themselves. Greater transparency can ensure that groups like the NRA cannot use their wealth to mislead judges and the public. Stricter ethical requirements for federal judges and a code of conduct for the Supreme Court can avoid conflicts of interest. Reporting gifts and hospitality received by judges can restore public confidence. These are measures that the courts could put in place tomorrow.

Congress also has a role to play. Bills like my DISCLOSE law would shine a light on those who seek to corrupt our democracy with endless amounts of black money. There are bipartisan proposals to require judges to uphold the same ethical standards as the other two branches of government. And I am working closely with Hank Johnson to strengthen the friend disclosure obligations that the NRA has exploited.

It’s never a good look when Americans have to rely on Russian hackers to see who is influencing our Supreme Court. Nor is it viable for a growing majority of Americans to believe that politics, not law, guides court decisions. The solution is a mixture of transparency and accountability of the Supreme Court, a solution that we must adopt quickly.

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