The Supreme Court on Monday, June 25, 2012 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The US Supreme Court may still retain some familiarity with the Constitution when it comes to deciding the nuances of cases involving immigration policy and lifetime incarceration. But when it comes to handing off control of American democracy to corporations, the Court continues to reject the intents of the founders and more than a century of case law to assure that CEOs are in charge.
Make no mistake, this is not a “free speech” or “freedom of association” stance by the Court’s Republican majority. That majority is narrowing the range of debate. It is picking winners. To turn a phrase from the old union song, this Court majority has decided which side it is on.
The same Court that in January 2010 ruled with the Citizens United decision that corporations can spend freely in federal elections—enjoying the same avenues of expression as human beings—on Monday ruled that states no longer have the ability to guard against what historically has been seen as political corruption and the buying of elections.
The court’s 5–4 decision in the Montana case of American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock significantly expands the scope and reach of the Citizens United ruling by striking down state limits on corporate spending in state and local elections. “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the majority wrote. “There can be no serious doubt that it does.”
Translation: if Exxon Mobil wants to spend $10 million to support a favored candidate in a state legislative or city council race that might decide whether the corporation is regulated, or whether it gets new drilling rights, it can. But why stop at $10 million? If it costs $100 million to shout down the opposition, the Court says that is fine. If if costs $1 billion, that’s fine, too.
And what of the opposition. Can groups that represent the public interest push back? Can labor unions take a stand in favor of taxing corporations like Exxon Mobil?
Not with the same freedom or flexibility that they had from the 1930s until this year. Last Thursday, the Court erected elaborate new barriers to participation in elections by public-sector unions—requiring that they get affirmative approval from workers they represent (but who may not at the moment be union members) before making special dues assessments to fund campaigns countering corporations.
How might it work? If Walmart wanted to support candidates who promised to eliminate all taxes for Walmart, the corporation could spend unlimited amounts of money. It would not need to gain stockholder approval. It can just go for it.
But if AFSCME wants to counter Walmart argument, saying that eliminating taxes on out-of-state retailers will save consumers very little but will ultimate undermine funding for schools and public services, the union will have to go through the laborious process of gaining permission from tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of workers. And even then, it will face additional reporting and structural barriers imposed by the Court.
Campaign finance reformers had held out some hope that states might be able to apply some restrictions on corporate spending, as Montana did with its 100-year-old law barring direct corporate contributions to political parties and candidates. That law, developed to control against the outright buying of elections by “copper kings” and “robber barons,” was repeatedly upheld. Until now.
Now, says Marc Elias, one of the nation’s top experts in election law, “To the extent that there was any doubt from the original Citizens United decision [that it] broadly applies to state and local laws, that doubt is now gone.… To whatever extent that door was open a crack, that door is now closed.”
There may still be a few legislative avenues left for countering the “money power” of the new “copper kings” and “robber barons.” But they are rapidly being closed off by a partisan high court majority.
That’s why US Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has emerged as a leading proponent of moves to amend the US Constitution to restore the rule of law in elections, says: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s absurd 5-4 ruling two years ago in Citizens United was a major blow to American democratic traditions. Sadly, despite all of the evidence that Americans see every day, the court continues to believe that its decision makes sense.”
When billionaires can “spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy this election for candidates who support the super-wealthy,” argues Sanders, “this is not democracy. This is plutocracy. And that is why we must overturn Citizens United if we are serious about maintaining the foundations of American democracy.”
Sanders says he will step up his efforts to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but the democratically disastrous rulings that extend from it.
“In his famous speech at Gettysburg during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln talked about America as a country ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’ Today, as a result of the Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider its decision in Citizens United, we are rapidly moving toward a nation of the super-rich, by the super-rich and for the super-rich,” explains Sanders. “That is not what America is supposed to be about. This Supreme Court decision must be overturned.”