Friday, January 20, 2012

A Bad Supreme Court Decision

In January of 2010, the Supreme Court made one of its worst decisions in years, if not decades, and maybe even the worst since the Dred Scott case in 1857. In a 5-4 split decision, the Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization who had sued the Federal Election Commission.
That landmark decision by the Supreme Court means that it is now unlawful for the government to ban political spending by corporations in elections. Thus, as a consequence of Citizens United, corporations and unions are now free to use their financial resources to air ads explicitly calling for the election or defeat of federal or state candidates for political office.
The justices in the majority ruled that corporations have the same First Amendment right to free speech as individuals, and for that reason the government cannot stop corporations from spending to help their favored candidates.

But a majority of the people of this country does not believe that corporations are people, in spite of what the Supreme Court has ruled.
Justice Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion. Among other things, he lamented that the Court “voted to overturn over 100 years of legal precedent by giving corporations the same status as individuals,” and by removing “legal barriers in place to protect the electoral process from corporate and legislative corruption, which is what the laws for the past 100 years were in place to do.
Just a few days after the Court’s decision in 2010, President Obama gave the annual State of the Union message. In that talk the President averred, “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities.”
Justice Stevens and the President were right: the Supreme Court made a bad decision.
  • That is why last November six U.S. Senators introduced a constitutional amendment that would effectively overturn the Citizens United ruling and restore the ability of Congress to properly regulate the campaign finance system. That proposal is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (You can read more about that proposed amendment here.) 
  • That is why Common Cause, the highly regarded nonpartisan advocacy organization, and other similar groups, are working diligently to reverse Citizens United
  • And that is also why today’s “Occupy the Courts” activity is so commendable. Today, January 20, is a national day of protest linking the Occupy Wall Street movement with the activities of the Move to Amend organization. This is a (part of) one day occupation of Federal courthouses across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in protest of the Court’s Citizens United ruling.
(Here in the Kansas City area, the Occupy the Courts protesters will be at the federal courthouse at 400 E. 9th St. from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There will also be a “post-protest celebration” Saturday evening at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 4501 Walnut St., KCMO.)

The "Corporations are not People" slogan is one that needs to be taken seriously by all of us who are U.S. citizens. For the sake of our democracy, the bad Supreme Court decision of 2010 needs to be opposed--and reversed.


  1. Hi Leroy,

    It interesting to see how this issue has been handled by comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. A few months ago, Colbert started a super PAC, with fans donating hundreds of thousands of dollars over a relatively short period of time. Now Colbert and Stewart are turning Citizens United into a comedy routine. Colbert has decided to run for "President of the United States of America of South Carolina," and has transferred his leadership of his own super PAC over to Stewart. They are now running ridiculous ad campaigns in SC.

    At first glance, it may just seem like a couple comedians having a good laugh, but I believe that what they're actually doing is exposing the danger of giving corporations the ability to unlimitedly fund candidates. Many of their SC ads deal with the unlimited spending capability of those in the GOP primaries, and mock the feigned "non-coordination" of the candidates with their respective super PACs.

    I think it's interesting to see these political satirists using their medium as a way to expose and ridicule the motivations behind Citizens United, and I feel that for a couple comedians, it's an admirable and worthwhile pursuit. Perhaps, if enough people catch on, we can come together to help reverse the crummy decision.

  2. Leroy,

    You are right on target with this post. This decision and its ramifications are undermining any sense of integrity in the election process.

  3. Amen, Leroy. Excellent post on this topic. The Supreme Court decision is a major reversal in a process of democratization that has been an important part of American history. We've overcome limitations in the voting process to property-holders, whites, and men. We've overcome against racist-motivated laws to prevent African-Americans from voting. The big question for the U.S. is whether it will be a land owned and operated by the wealthy elite or by the people. I know that's an overly simplistic way to put it, but it's the simplistic truth.

  4. You are probably right. Although in this country where truth, decency, and goodwill are diminishing and polarity increasing in multiple directions, it is hard to imagine what a good decision would have been. Each group looks to its own interest and not that of others. Money, propaganda, and name-calling flows from all sides far too easily. Dino's and Rino's are dying out. Dialogue is vanishing. Big money can be easily corralled via social media (small amounts in big numbers adds up, even if the cause is illegitimate). Corporations are not the only non-people entities to abuse political fundraising and vote shifting.
    What is the road back to dialogue, truth, decency, and goodwill both in politics and in general?

    I look forward to reading Craig Dempsey's input, and possibly from another mediator out there.

  5. I appreciate those who have posted comments to this point. With regard to Anton's comments, there was an article in the May 2011 issue of "Vanity Fair" titled "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%." (Actually, I had seen that expression much before then and even had the intention of making a blog posting with that title at one point.)

    Although I continue to think the economic disparity in the country should perhaps be considered more in terms of 20% - 80%, certainly the wealthiest 1% have undue power in the country, including inordinate influence on national and state elections.

  6. The great untold story of the culture wars is that, for the powers that be, the fights over abortion and gay rights are just window dressing. The real push for a more conservative court has been for an economically conservative court. Indeed, this push in many ways predates the culture wars, and in it's push for private property rights, even creates a strange link between the Dred Scott and Citizens United decisions. Ruling that Dred Scott is not a person, and that a corporation is a person, are just flip sides of the same coin.

    My Sunday school class has read a couple of books in recent years that helped open my eyes on this. First, we read God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone, which took us into the world of black liberation theology, and the awareness of the role of ideology in the self-serving analysis of ruling powers. More recently we read The Divine Right of Capital by Marjorie Kelly. Her title is a play on the divine right of kings, and her book an analysis of the feudal roots of modern capitalism. The corporation is the modern form of the feudal estate. The CEO is the modern prince. Guess who are the modern serfs. Getting back to Citizens United, the point is, Citizens United is not an aberration. This is where jurisprudence has been pushed for decades, even generations. Like Lord Voldemort, seeking to re-materialize in the Harry Potter stories, the feudal system is attempting a comeback in the corporation. Where cities have become "company towns," Voldemort has made it. (Non-Harry Potter fans might want to think in terms of "The South shall rise again!")

    Ironically, much of what Kelly recommends for reforming capitalism points in the direction of what Germany has done in creating a democratic capitalism. This is the Germany that is widely considered to have "won" the Great Recession. It turns out that The People are not only better at running a government, they are also better at running a corporation. However, they might not pay the CEO a gazillion dollars for ruining the business, so this will not be popular in America any time soon!

    All this even changed my understanding of a key verse in the Bible. Jesus famously said, "The love of money is root of all evil." Now, it sounded profound, but I had only a vague idea of what it meant. The last few years, both in what i have read, and what I have lived through, have exploded this verse in my mind. When it is time to put a tombstone on our era, that verse might well make the definitive inscription. This is the last judgment on Wall Street unbound.

  7. This morning when I opened my e-mail, I was happy to find these comments from a Thinking Friend in Canada:

    "You are absolutely right...'corporations are not people' but, furthermore, corporations have vested interests in particular things which are not good for the nation. Corporations thrive on greed and have very little concern for the welfare of the people at large. For sure, they are not concerned with the rights of the 'little guy.'

    "In our country, the federal government has placed limits as to what corporations and labour unions may contribute to political parties...not perfect, but at least we are heading in the right direction. I have very little faith in is absolutely outrageous the kinds of monies that are paid out to CEOs and top management people."

  8. While the affect of the Citizens United decision on U.S. elections may turn out to be harmful (though the proliferation of media outlets and rise of social networking may mitigate the ruling's effects), I think one must also think about what the appropriate role of the Supreme Court is in our political system. Is its role to weigh the merits of public policies and determine if they are good or bad, or is its role to interpret the Constitution? If one argues for the former, then we end up granting nine appointed judges the same power the Congress and President share (i.e. the power to make public policy). I can't help but view this as a dangerous concentration of power (not unlike the power held by the "1%"). So I believe it best for the court to act as the final interpreter of the Constitution, and in this case they were adjudicating one of the most vague and contested portions of the document -- the First Amendment, which states "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." There's not much to go on here in terms of what constitutes speech or whether individual or corporate speakers are to be held to different standards. So the question is, when Congress passes a law that DOES abridge the freedom of speech, should the court defer to the legislative branch or side with citizens (or groups of citizens) having their speech abridged? Well, in the past the court has upheld flag burning as a protected (though unpopular) form of "speech." So why not follow suit in this case and uphold corporate speech as protected (and also unpopular) speech? Is it a good idea? Maybe not. But does the Constitution offer guidance that would lead to a different conclusion?

    I'm as suspicious as the rest of you of the power of economic elites, but I'm also wary of government institutions that overstep their constitutional authority. That's why I believe the proposed constitutional amendment is a good idea. The Framers were humble enough to provide a means for mending the flaws in our governing document, and I believe now is the time to make use of this democratic process.

  9. My favorite comment about the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United goes like this: "I'll believe that a corporation is a person when the State of Texas executes one."
    We might also remember that whenever there is a vacancy on the Court, conservatives in the Senate always ask nominees to swear that they are not judicial activists, and if nominated by a Republican President, they usually do. But when some government institution does something the conservatives don't like, they raise a cry for the courts to declare that corporations are citizens, or that local governments cannot use Eminent Domain against powerful propertied interests, or that a court should second guess a decision by a husband and a doctor to remove the breathing tube from his comatose wife, etc.
    It is only when courts decide such things as blacks and whites should go to school together, or women and men should be paid the same for the same work, or any decision they don't like that conservatives call for judicial self-restraint.
    The concepts of "Judiaicl Activism" or "Jusicial Self-Restraint" are not principles; they are weapons in a fight. And conservative (and liberals) will pick up either one as it suits their purpose. We like activists, or self-restrainers, depending on whether we like, or dislike, what they are doing.
    So much for principles.