Monday, February 8, 2010




Perhaps against my better judgment, I passed several hours this weekend working through the Supreme Court's recent campaign spending case: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. __(2010)(slip op.). In brief, the case invalidates a Congressional Act that restricts corporations from making "independent expenditures" or issuing "electioneering communications" that expressly "advocate the election or defeat of a particular Federal candidate" within 30 days of a Federal election. 2 U.S.C. §§ 441(b), 434(f)(3)(A). The Court said that the Act violated "all corporations' right to political speech" under the First Amendment. In the process, the Court overruled a 20-year old precedent that upheld the same law on the State level: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990).

I reacted with surprise when I learned what the Court had done. After all, it made perfect sense to me why Congress would want to restrict corporations' ability to spend money advocating particular Federal candidates: To prevent massive, wealthy businesses from deluging the public with their views, foreclosing fair debate in an election. Money buys influence. Even if corporations do not use money to literally "buy off" a candidate, they can easily use it to buy up all the airtime and essentially tilt the playing field to favor candidates they like--namely, guys who support corporations and their agendas.

In 1990, the Supreme Court said as much. In Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990), the Court--speaking through a 6-3 majority--concluded that restrictions on corporate "independent expenditures" during elections did not violate the First Amendment. True, such restrictions impacted corporations' "freedom to speak." But the Court found the State's interest in preventing "the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form" justified restrictions on corporate political speech. Id. at 660. The Court further reasoned that a State could restrict corporate spending on elections in order to curb "corruption or the appearance of corruption." Id. at 659.

In other words, the Court recognized in 1990 that corporations hold disproportionate political influence in America because they have so much more money than individual voters. That was true 20 years ago. It is even more true today. Corporations are getting bigger and bigger. Traditional competitors merge with each other. Their treasuries grow. And they can use that money to dominate the airwaves before elections in ways that individuals cannot.

But now the Court overrules Austin. Writing for the new conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy called Austin "poorly reasoned," even though six justices voted for it just 20 years ago. So I guess that means a case is "poorly reasoned" when it tells the truth about corporations. It is no accident that Kennedy did not vote for Austin back in 1990. Today he gets his revenge, thanks in large part to right-wing help from Bush appointees Clarence Thomas, John G. Roberts and Samuel A. Alito. Those guys weren't around in 1990. Now they're calling the constitutional shots: They think Austin was "poorly reasoned," so they overruled it.

Why did they think Austin was "poorly reasoned?" After all, doesn't it seem obvious that Congress should take steps to prevent massive corporations from dominating news cycles at election time? I think so. But I'm not on the Supreme Court.

Much to my amazement, the conservatives actually phrase the debate in "liberty" terms. They think that corporations are exactly the same as private individuals when it comes to First Amendment rights. Applying that legal fiction, they think that corporations--like individual guys on soapboxes--have the right to unlimited free speech. And they are outraged that "poor little corporations" might face criminal prosecution under the law if they spend money supporting a Federal candidate before an election.

To be clear, the Federal law in this case does not bar corporations from spending money on elections. It merely requires them to set up separate entities for political purposes--so-called "Political Action Committees" (PACs). If a corporation wants to spend money advocating for a candidate, it has to spend through the PAC, and the PAC must report its funding sources. This allows the public to see who is paying for the corporate messages. PACs must also keep a treasurer and records. Yes, corporations have to endure some bureaucracy before exercising their First Amendment rights under the law. But it is not as if they cannot speak: They must merely follow a few more administrative steps than private individuals.

Yet the conservatives scream bloody murder about these administrative steps. How unjust and unfair, they say, that corporations must form new entities and pay some paperwork expenses in order to influence Federal elections! Justice Kennedy paints a doomsday scenario in which he claims that "poor little corporations" cannot afford to comply with these "administrative steps" prior to speaking on an election. He says nothing about the mammoth corporations that have the time and resources to comply with the law. No, it's all about the "little corporations--" the poor, wronged little corporations and small family businesses.

In truth, it is extremely easy for small businesses to circumvent the law here. Assuming that small businesses even have the capital needed to advertise for major Federal elections, they could avoid problems with the law merely by creating a PAC or by speaking as individuals. The law only applies to corporations, so a "little" corporation could sidestep it by refraining from speaking as a corporation. If a "little" corporation only has two members, they could speak as individuals "with connections to small business." They do not need a PAC. They still have their individual First Amendment rights. When the law involves fictions like "corporate people," it is easy to be imaginative in thwarting those fictions.

In this light, it is foolish for the conservatives to crusade for the "poor, wronged little corporations." By standing up for the "little corporations" in Citizens United, they actually abolished restrictions on the big corporations--and they were the ones who caused the problem in the first place. They threw the baby out with the bathwater. But that was probably what they intended all along.

And what glib reasoning the Court used to reach its corporate-friendly conclusions. While I might find it obvious that "immense aggregations of corporate wealth" have a "corrosive and distorting influence" on Federal elections, the Court resolved that quandary easily enough. On this point, Justice Kennedy merely says: "We conclude that independent expenditures made by corporations do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." Citizens United, 558 U.S. __ (2010)(slip. op. at p. 42).

Oh, all right. I'll just take your word for it. When I see a corporation funneling $140 million to advocate a Republican candidate for Senate, I won't assume any corruption. Corporations, after all, are selfless and would never do anything underhanded.

Let us even imagine that corruption--or the appearance of corruption--does not flow from corporate expenditures on behalf of a candidate. Even then, the fact that a corporation spends massive amounts to elect a corporate-friendly candidate creates popular perception that the corporation "bought" the candidate.

But Justice Kennedy resolves this issue easily enough: "The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy." Citizens United, 558 U.S. __(2010)(slip op. at 44).

Of course not, Justice Kennedy. How could I lose faith in our democracy when major corporations outspend their ideological opponents by millions to get pro-business Senators, Representatives and Presidents elected? How could I lose faith in our democracy when major corporations buy up all the airtime to get their guys in office? After all, I have to respect corporations' First Amendment rights, too, don't I?

According to Justice Kennedy, indeed I do--even if respecting a corporation's First Amendment rights makes it almost impossible to effectively exercise my own.

At this point, we begin to see the real problem with the conservatives' philosophy about corporate free speech rights. After all, when a powerful person--or a powerful group--exercises his free speech rights, he makes it more difficult for less powerful individuals to voice theirs. It is elementary that money translates into political influence. People with more money can speak more loudly on issues than those with less. By definition, corporations have far more money than even powerful private individuals.

Under this reasoning, it is easy to see how corporations can drown out debate simply by exercising their First Amendment rights. They can overwhelm private opposition by spending massive sums on ubiquitous advertising. That is the "corrosive and distorting influence" that the Court described in Austin. And corporate power to exert "corrosive and distorting influence" is the reason why Congress imposed limitations on the their ability to exercise their speech rights in the first place. Put simply, when corporations exercise their speech rights, they make it progressively more difficult for individuals to exercise theirs.

That is the real meaning of the conservative "corporate liberty" argument: By freeing corporations to speak, everyone else has to shut up and listen to them. In my view, that is not what the First Amendment is about. The First Amendment is about individual rights, not corporate rights. If corporate free speech rights make it difficult for individual free speech rights to survive, I have little problem regulating corporate free speech rights.

But Justice Kennedy does not acknowledge any of this. He does not see the obvious--and disturbing--practical implications behind his reasoning. Rather, he seems to dwell in some ethereal place in which corporate liberty is the same as individual liberty. As such, he sees the corporation as the victim. He even ascribes wisdom to corporations, as if corporate speech could actually enlighten the population: "Corporations do not have monolithic views. On certain topics, they may possess valuable expertise, leaving them best equipped to point out errors and fallacies in speech of all sorts, including the speech of candidates and elected officials." Citizens United, 558 U.S. __(2010)(slip. op. at 48-49).

Contrary to this rhetoric, corporations do have monolithic views on many issues. When it comes to profitability and shareholder enrichment, all corporations are the same: They want to make as much money as possible. That is a "monolithic view." In that sense, corporations will always say the same thing: Namely, whatever will benefit the corporation in the circumstances. In political speech, that means a corporation will always say things to support candidates who will make them richer. Given that, it is ridiculous to think that corporations will somehow "enlighten the public" with their "diverse viewpoints" on life. Corporate political speech is all the same: It is calculated to get people elected who will make them richer. End of story, Justice Kennedy.

In sum, this case disgusts me. I have other objections about it that I will raise in a later post. But for now, it is enough for me to say that the conservatives' view about "corporate liberty" eviscerates the First Amendment's focus on individual expression. Congress understood that corporations had to cede some expressive liberty in order to protect everyone else's relative ability to engage in political speech. Now that the Court has abolished those restrictions, it has opened the door to even greater corporate control over government.

Corporate control over government was already bad before this case. Now it will get even worse. As I suggested in a satire a while back, we might as well just rename the country the "United States of America, Inc." because that's exactly where we're headed. Or maybe we're already there.

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