Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Supremes

Those who uncritically subscribe to Anatole France's dictum that "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges...", will be heartened by the Supreme Court's decision yesterday to undercut the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2110 (McCain-Feingold) by ruling in favor of virtually unfettered corporate donations to congressional campaigns. That the ruling also frees labor unions to do the same merely highlights the yawning inequality between corporate wealth and that of unions; hence my allusion to M. France's sardonic observation.

In Thursday's Citizen's United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the Court held that the 1st Amendment is absolute; that it applies to corporate "speech" as well as that of individuals; and reiterated earlier rulings that corporations are persons (First Nat'l Bank of Boston v. Bellotti and NAACP v. Button). That this contention has its roots in English common law--which informed our Constitution-- is widely accepted, but not by dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, who opined that corporations are not actual members of society, pointing out that:

"they cannot vote or run for office. In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it."

The Citizens United case was about the FEC's denial of that lobbyist's request to air a corporately-underwritten anti-Hillary video. SCOTUS ruled the FCC's decision to be unconstitutional prior-restraint. In actuality, Citizens turned out to be a test case for the Court's [successsful] overturning of its more liberal verdict in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce which held that political speech may be banned based on the speaker's corporate identity. That ruling was intended to "prevent the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of [corporate] wealth...that have little or no correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas."

Thursday's decision argued-- in Justice Kennedy's words -- that while such "speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials [it] does not mean that those officials are corrupt and the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy [emphasis mine]." I don't know to which planet Mr. Kennedy repairs at the end of a long day on the bench, but it is a rosy view of human nature indeed to posit that special-interest money is not a pernicious influence on the political process. I would venture that my opinion on this is shared by the majority of my fellow citizens, whatever their political persuasion.

As Democrats scrambled to craft restorative legislation, Sen. Russ Feingold derided today's SCOTUS decision as "a terrible mistake", while loyal Republican John McCain merely said he was "disappointed". One has to wonder how Senator-elect Scott Brown will vote on any such future bill given his need--as the new kid--to toe the party line (see Mitch McConnell on the subject), versus his stated admiration for Sen. McCain.

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