Thursday, January 21, 2010
Corporations are people, too
What does it mean that a doctrinaire conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court just eliminated the evolving theory of campaign finance reform? Well, it means a lot of things -- none of which bode particularly well for the future of elections in the United States -- but maybe it will finally force the right wing to stop labeling judges they don't like as "activist." And maybe, just maybe, it will convince U.S. citizens that who they elect to the White House really matters, since the five conservative justices who formed the 5-4 majority were nominated to the court by conservative Republican presidents. Maybe it's the term "conservative" that needs an overhaul, since the conservative majority voted to invalidate decades of jurisprudence aimed at protecting the society's interest in free elections while trying to place practical limits on campaign contributions. That's about as activist as it gets at this level! The ruling overruled two earlier Supreme Court decisions limiting the role of corporations and associations, like labor unions, in election campaigns -- a 1990 ruling upholding the constitutionality of placing limits on corporate campaign spending and the 2003 decision upholding the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law. McCain-Feingold barred corporations from paid political advertising on television and radio for or against individual candidates in the last 60 days before a general election. In the abstract, of course, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (No. 08-205) was inarguably correct. “If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, according to the New York Times, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” It's hard to argue with that, and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined the decision. But as Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out in his 90-page dissent, the majority had erred by treating corporate speech as equivalent to human speech. "The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case," Stevens wrote, joined by the other three members of the more-liberal wing, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Stevens read his dissent from the bench. In a way, the division on the court reflects the division in U.S. politics, where members of the two major parties in Congress seem almost irreconcilably at odds about the country's major challenges. Perhaps as a reflection of that divide, U.S. President Barack Obama was unusually critical of the Supreme Court in a statement after the ruling. “With its ruling today,” he said, “the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Obama called on Congress to respond 'forcefully' to the ruling, perhaps by rewriting the invalidated law in a constitutionally acceptable manner. But it's hard to see, at least at this moment, how that can possibly be accomplished.