“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … .”
-U.S. Constitution, Amendment I
Ever meet a corporation? Ever have an extended conversation with one? Ever invite one to a party? Ever have one as a best friend?
The Bill of Rights, which comprise the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was ratified in December of 1791, a scant two and a half years after the original document, which established the supreme law of the land, had been ratified by the original states to the union.
I mention this fact because, at the time, nothing like the present day corporation existed.
The first corporations in the United States formed in the mid-nineteenth century, and extensive laws recognizing their existence were not promulgated until later in that century. Historically, corporations formed to provide protection to individuals who engaged in business affairs from being personally responsible for their business decisions and activities. It was a way to foster an expanded economic climate such as developed with the explosion of industry in what became known as the Industrial Revolution.
Prior to that period in the nation’s history, the idea of a corporation as a shield against personal liability would have been antithetical to the American economic scene. Much of that early economy was still agrarian, and little of it involved financial dealings in which large groups of individuals contributed money to a business so as to advance the activities of the business while profiting from the business’s profits, all for the public good.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that those who wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights had no thought of extending the rights therein guaranteed to anything like a corporation, whether legally recognized or merely de facto existent.
And yet, in spite of this indisputable fact, a five-member majority of the nine-member Supreme Court decided last week that the free speech guarantee in the First Amendment applies with equal force to corporations and, presumably, to trade unions, associations and other non-human entities as well.
The implications of this decision (in a case entitled Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission) are devastating for a nation whose democratic principles are already suffering mightily from the adverse effect of money in its electoral processes. What makes the decision even harder to swallow is the makeup of the majority. All five of the justices who signed on to the lead opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy have espoused to the “strict constructionist” method of interpreting the Constitution.
That method, simply stated, seeks to interpret the Constitution as the founders intended it. And since the founders certainly did not have non-human entities that didn’t even exist at the time in mind when the Bill of Rights was enacted, it is impossible to believe that they intended to extend the guarantee of free speech to those entities.
In fact, any self-respecting strict constructionist would be loathe to even so much as suggest such a possibility in any other context but the one that the Court chose to deal with in the Citizens United case. (And don’t let that name fool you; Citizens United is not a group of human beings formed for the purpose of bringing something akin to a class action suit. It’s a corporation formed for the purpose of producing political ads, such as the one in issue before the Court: a full-length movie offered as a political advertisement denigrating the then-presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.)
And so, if the majority opinion in the case does nothing else, it surely exposes the hypocrisy of the strict constructionists’ “principles.” Likewise, the case also reveals the judicial activism that the right wing of the court now embraces (and has embraced for years, contrary to public perceptions that are largely promulgated by the “right-wing” media).
To be specific, in ruling as it did, the strict constructionists on the Court took a case that could easily have been decided without reaching the Constitutional issue (a key step characteristic of an “activist” Court) and then overruled not one, but two prior Court decisions, thereby rejecting the doctrine of stare decisis (another key step characteristic of an “activist” Court).
Thus the current majority wing of the Court is fully exposed by its decision in Citizens United to be anything but strict constructionist and to be the embodiment of an “activist” Court. Needless to say, this gang of five is composed entirely of Republican presidential appointees (Scalia by Reagan in 1986, Kennedy by Reagan in 1988, Thomas by the first Bush in 1991, Roberts by the second Bush in 2005, and Alito by the same Bush in 2006).
But the unveiling of the true character of the Court’s majority is at best a silver lining to what is otherwise a horrendous blow to America’s great experiment in democracy. Once the full implications of the decision take effect, political campaigns are likely to look more like McDonald’s commercials than debates over weighty issues like war and peace.
How will this change occur? Quite simply, what the decision allows is corporate political speech not just on ideas or policies, but in favor of (or in opposition to) specific candidates for office. In other words, what is now on tap in American politics is the commercialization of elections.
Some will say that we are already at that state in the deterioration of American democracy. And, to be sure, we are a long way from the purity of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
But now, we will have the marketing departments of our largest corporations putting together glitzy political ads for Joe Smith or Jane Jones, proclaiming them to be “scientifically-proven” to promote the “best results” in a test of comparable candidates.
And their smiles will be brighter. For sure.