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Show time and forceful arguments about Citizens United

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2012 - Anders Walker is a bright, funny young professor at Saint Louis University Law School. But one wonders if his education at Yale University or Duke Law School could have prepared him to debate the controversial Citizens United decision with the new dean, Tom Keefe.

This reporter arrived at the Monday debate after Walker had spoken and just as Keefe was getting wound up about the 2010 decision permitting unlimited corporate contributions on behalf of political candidates. And Dean Keefe sure does get wound up. He makes Bill Clinton look like a shrinking violet.

Keefe, a SLU alum, used his best trial lawyer tactics to win over the students and faculty who crowded a big university classroom for this Constitution Day debate at the school. He didn't wear shorts, like he did for one of the early student orientations, but quickly peeled off his coat as he launched into the argument.

Keefe is not given to understatement. In the course of 45 entertaining minutes he called Citizens United the worst decision since Plessy v. Ferguson, the 19th century decision upholding racial segregation.

He called those who take advantage of Citizens United "dirty rotten Republican corporate buttheads."

He explained that the only reason Citizens United money has not put Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney ahead in the polls is that Romney is "puke" as a candidate. (He added that Karl Rove was a nerd who only was treated as cool because of his big money super PACs.)

He said that the activist Supreme Court rushed to issue the Citizens United decision to allow Republicans to win the 2010 midterm elections. And he added that the mortgage meltdown had left so many corporate "asses hanging out" that they needed Citizens United to prevail in 2010. Helpfully, Keefe turned his rear to the audience to illustrate his point.

As he leveled his funny, scathing criticism at the Supreme Court he looked toward former Missouri Supreme Court judge Mike Wolff in the back of the room and asked out loud whether his criticism of the court and its Republican justices could cost him his law license. Wolff, smiling, shook his head no.

To which Keefe quipped he better not admit forging his wife's name on campaign contributions because that would be felony.

He said that liberals need not worry about the court throwing out Roe v. Wade, the abortion decision, because it is the decision that "keeps on giving," electing Republicans to office. He added that Roe allowed Catholics to ignore all of the rest of Catholic beliefs in a single-minded pursuit of overturning the abortion decision.

Keefe said that that the price of Republican presidents appointing Republican justices was decisions like the Walmart ruling that kept women from banding together as a class to sue the company for decades of sex discrimination. Keefe cited other decisions where the court had made it harder to file class actions and more difficult for labor unions to organize.

Just because Keefe was funny and over-the-top, shouldn't suggest that he winged the debate. He came armed with figures showing that campaign contributions permitted under Citizens United had contributed $82 million toward nominating Mitt Romney.

He acknowledged that individuals always have been able to make unlimited contributions toward electing their candidates and that the Swift Boat Veterans, who sank John Kerry in 2004, had spent large sums. But he pointed out that the Swift Boat crowd had been fined for violating the law. (He added that the Republicans had stolen that election in Ohio.)

The Republican end game is to convince Americans that government doesn't work by cutting off money to government so it can't work, he said. Instead of talking about helping others and the community, Republicans turn the voters' attention to words like bureaucracy and deficits.  He suggested that a Jesuit university should have the welfare of the greater community as its mission.

Citizens United had created a plutocracy, Keefe concluded, which he described as a democracy worthy of Pluto.

After his stemwinder, he asked the students if any of them still supported Citizens United.  Two in the crowd raised their hands, one tentatively and the other boldly. The dean joked he was expelling the bold student. To the other student, who took his hand back down, he said, "Well played. You have a future - in politics."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.