Thursday, February 4, 2010



Today I am reading the Supreme Court's decision about corporate funding in Federal election campaigns: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. __(2010)(No. 08-205 slip op.). I have already heard horror stories about this case. But I am always careful to judge Supreme Court cases without actually reading them. The press usually distorts what Supreme Court cases actually say. Sometimes they exaggerate. Other times they leave out disturbing (or encouraging) nuances. If my legal education taught me anything, it was always to read a text carefully before saying anything about it. And you really have to do that in order to understand a Supreme Court case.

That is not to say that magic lies within Supreme Court cases. Far from it. In most cases, Supreme Court decisions represent nothing more than gross political prejudice masquerading as erudite legal science. Justices make up their minds about the political issues at stake in a constitutional question. Then they instruct their law clerks to dress up their prejudices in neat legal rhetoric for the presses. Principle rarely plays a role in this process. It's just power and political judgment operating as law.

In law school, I read old Supreme Court cases and marveled at them. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Court actually seemed to want to find justice in American law. I even dreamed about becoming a justice myself: It seemed that they could actually do some good in the world. Men like William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall and William O. Douglas became my intellectual heroes because they spoke out against entrenched American injustice. And they bent positive law in order to achieve justice: They knew that positive law could legally create injustice just as easily as a mob could inflict injustice without law.

But those days are long, long gone. Supreme Court justices today do not fight the good fight. They are tired, uninspiring, lukewarm political actionaries who do less to enlarge individual rights than to stamp out what few liberties Americans still have. Worse, the current five-member conservative alliance is far more concerned with corporate freedom than individual rights. Under Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., the Constitution stands for corporations, not people.

That is not inspiring. It is just disgusting.

It is doubly disgusting because justices today actually reference Supreme Court precedent enlarging individual freedom to defend massive corporations. I have only made it through the first 12 pages in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and already Justice Kennedy cited two cases in which Chief Justice Roberts referenced cases from the liberal 1960s to argue that "corporations need freedom, too." This is like the KKK using Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) to argue that "murderous white bigots are people, too." This sheer dishonesty--and ignorant contempt for American history--makes my jaw drop.

First, Chief Justice Roberts cited New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). In that case, arch-liberal justice William J. Brennan, Jr., concluded that newspapers could not be sued for libel when publishing stories about "public figures" and "matters of public concern." The case stands as a testament to individual free speech rights. It established a principle that the people can speak freely about the powerful without substantial legal worry under the First Amendment. It reinforced the idea that the First Amendment is the people's check on the powerful: They have a right to speak no matter how exulted their target.

But now comes Chief Justice Roberts. He rips Sullivan's hopeful constitutional language from its context to support a conclusion that the First Amendment "must give the benefit of any doubt to protecting rather than stifling speech." Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., 551 U.S. 449, 469 (2007)(opinion of Roberts, C.J.).

Justice Brennan wrote those words to promote public speech by individuals against powerful interests. They made sense in that context. But now Chief Justice Roberts shamelessly co-opts them to promote corporate speech designed to influence elections and ram corporate messages down people's throats. This is the ultimate misuse of Sullivan. Justice Brennan would have been horrified to see his language warped for this purpose.

Chief Justice Roberts does not end here. He uses another classic liberal First Amendment standard from the 1960s to support neoconservative corporate license in the 2010s: NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963). In that case, the Court struck down segregationist Virginia laws that banned black political agitators from promoting civil rights. Justice Brennan--the liberal champion--again wrote the opinion, remarking: "First Amendment freedoms need breathing room to survive." Id. at 433.

Chief Justice Roberts used the same sentence to defend the corporate freedom to ram political advertisements down people's throats. Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., 551 U.S. 449, 468-469 (2007).

This is so outrageous it is almost satirical. To even imagine that a Republican Chief Justice would steal language from a symbolically liberal free speech case to aggrandize corporate power is so shocking that it prompts disbelieving laughter. But Chief Justice Roberts did exactly that: He used a 1960s civil rights case about the First Amendment's importance in the individual's arsenal against injustice to bolster a corporation's power to maintain its strength over individuals.

That is almost as inappropriate as prying random words from a Hitler speech to commend Jewish freedom.

Sadly, this is how the Supreme Court operates these days. It has no respect for principle, no respect for American history and no respect for consensus. It ignores the fact that the Constitution should provide guiding unity on major principles, not an excuse for discord. On hot-button issues, its members dig in their heels and act like children--or Congressmen. They cannot agree on anything except their own base prejudices, which they enshroud in law as soon as they get a fifth vote--just like Congressmen.

Maybe this is just how any human being would behave in the circumstances. But these are Supreme Court justices; we should hold them to a higher standard. They say they are not politicians. They say they rule "on the law and nothing else."

But I see through the charade. It's all nonsense. It's all just crude power play. And it's disgusting because it's so dishonest. If a Chief Justice can corrupt hopeful language from 1960s civil rights cases to enlarge corporate power today, it is obvious that the Supreme Court has no shame at all. Just like any political group, it will use whatever means at its disposal to achieve particular results.

Yet the Constitution is more concerned with means than ends. The People adopted the Constitution because they demanded respect for individual rights against the government and larger powers. While corporations may not have been as powerful in 1787 as they are today, it is indisputable that they now wield enormous influence over American lives. Corporations can dominate debate about public issues in a way the Framers could scarcely have imagined. That is dangerous for individual First Amendment rights.

Apparently, this Supreme Court does not understand that. Now I'm afraid to continue reading the case. Who knows what terrors lurk in its later pages.

On the other hand, I might get a few guffaws along the way--and more ideas for satire.

I can't write the shit Supreme Court justices come up with.

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