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conservative-leaning scotus strikes again

January 21, 2010

Not surprisingly, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court has struck again with a 5-to-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that overturns certain longstanding limits on political campaign spending by corporations. The decision not only overturns section 441b of the McCain-Feingold Act, it effectively overturns Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and parts of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission as well.

The majority opinion that such restrictions amount to “censorship” and a violation of the First Amendment further solidifies the “personhood” of legal entities such as corporations stemming from the 1886 case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, and puts them on even more of an equal footing with “natural persons.”

Moreover, the ruling further bolsters the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo equating money with speech, which doesn’t bode well for the majority of Americans who can’t afford to have their ‘voices’ heard. Corporations are now able to spend as much money from their general funds as they want in any congressional or presidential election they so choose via campaign ads. As Ralph Nader puts it:

Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission shreds the fabric of our already weakened democracy by allowing corporations to more completely dominate our corrupted electoral process. It is outrageous that corporations already attempt to influence or bribe our political candidates through their political action committees (PACs), which solicit employees and shareholders for donations. With this decision, corporations can now also draw on their corporate treasuries and pour vast amounts of corporate money, through independent expenditures, into the electoral swamp already flooded with corporate campaign PAC contribution dollars.

Maybe I’m just overreacting, but this could very well be the beginning of the end for democracy as we know it. This ruling sets a dangerous precedent, and I couldn’t agree more with the dissenting opinion penned by Justice Stevens, especially this glaringly obvious point:

The fact that corporations are different from human beings might seem to need no elaboration, except that the majority opinion almost completely elides it. Austin set forth some of the basic differences. Unlike natural persons, corporations have “limited liability” for their owners and managers, “perpetual life,” separation of ownership and control, “and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets…that enhance their ability to attract capital and to deploy their resources in ways that maximize the return of their shareholders’ investments.” 494 U.S., at 658-659. Unlike voters in U.S. elections, corporations may be foreign controlled. Unlike other interest groups, business corporations have been “effectively delegated responsibility for ensuring society’s economic welfare”; they inescapably structure the life of every citizen. “‘[T]he resources in the treasury of a business corporation,'” furthermore, “‘are not an indication of popular support for the corporation’s political ideas.'” Id., at 659 (quoting MCFL, 479 U.S., at 258). “‘They reflect instead the economically motivated decisions of investors and customers. The availability of these resources may make a corporation a formidable political presence, even though the power of the corporation may be no reflection of the power of its ideas,'” 494 U.s., at 659 (quoting MCFL, 479 U.S., at 258).

It might also be added that corporations have no conscience, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their “personhood” often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.

As for the issue of the First Amendment, it doesn’t explicitly state who’s entitled to these protections, except near the end where it mentions “the press” and “the people,” and it can certainly be argued that corporations are included. However, my opinion — which is mostly based upon some of the Founding Fathers’ statements regarding large corporations and the fact that the states strictly limited the power of corporations — is that these protections were meant for the press and the people, as in natural persons or citizens, and were never intended to apply to corporations.

Personally, I think the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was negatively impacted the day corporations were essentially granted personhood, which effectively extends certain constitutional protections to corporations and other legal persons, such as the ability to contribute to political campaigns.

The way elections are currently conducted and financed in the U.S., the average citizen has enough trouble competing with the lobbying power of large multinational corporations, thereby severely limiting their ‘voice’ in the political process.

And despite the fact that this ruling means other legal entities such as unions, environmental groups, etc. can also run unlimited campaign ads, this new ability of corporations to relentlessly bombard newspapers and airwaves with ads using their general funds will merely serve to bring these big-monied interests that much closer to Washington, and consequently, the U.S. one step closer to a plutocracy.

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