Last week at the America’s Future Now! Conference, People For’s Marge Baker participated in a panel called "Changing Citizens United and Fixing the Supreme Court." The panelists explained the negative impact of the Roberts Court’s corporate bias, the Citizens United decision, and the influence of big businesses on our elections. But don’t worry, they also outlined all the things we can do about it: legislate change, fix the courts, and, most importantly, work towards amending the Constitution.
Jeff Sessions is at it again. In a statement following the release of tens of thousands of pages of documents related to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Friday, Sessions concluded:
Kagan’s memos unambiguously express a leftist philosophy and an approach to the law that seems more concerned with achieving a desired social result than fairly following the Constitution. Ms. Kagan has never been a judge, and only briefly practiced law—spending far more time as a liberal advocate than a legal practitioner.
Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate committee that will grill Kagan this summer, has apparently decided to stick to the blanket accusation of “judicial activism”—or, as it is now known, “outcomes-based” judging. The idea that conservative judges read the Constitution while liberal judges pull ideas out of thin air was spectacularly disproved by the Roberts Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, and recently received a thorough takedown from former Justice David Souter. Yet Sessions continues to peddle nonsense about progressive appointees caring more about a “social result” than the Constitution.
And, by the way, when Sessions accuses Kagan of lacking judicial experience, he walks right into a well-documented double standard.
Republicans say they’re plotting to use any Supreme Court nomination battle to their advantage in November.
Butpollsshow that the issue cuts strongly the other way—the American public is overwhelmingly concerned about the current Court’s pro-corporate sympathies and its failure to fully appreciate how the law affects individual Americans.
Within hours of President Obama’s announcement that he would nominate Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, Illinois Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias seized on that message in an email to supporters. Here’s a screenshot:
Giannoulias isn’t the first candidate to appeal to the public’s discomfort with the Court’s pro-corporate bent. Last month, now-Rep. Ted Deutch decisively won a special election in Florida, after running on a platform that included a Constitutional Amendment to reverse Citizens United v. FEC.
Citizens United, Ledbetter, and Exxon v. Baker have brought home the impact that the Court’s corporate leanings can have on all Americans. We’re expecting to see a lot more office-seekers raising these issues as November approaches.
People For and a coalition of progressive groups will run a full page ad in the Washington Post next week, criticizing the Supreme Court’s increasing deference to corporate interests. The ad, which pictures judicial robes embroidered with the logos of large corporations and asks “Is the Supreme Court Corporate America’s newest subsidiary?,” was released today.
The corporate sympathies of the current Supreme Court majority—displayed in cases like Citizens United v. FEC and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company—have shaken Americans across the political spectrum. Last month, a People For report documented the Court’s 10-year pro-corporate trend, and the emergence of a “corporate bloc” on the Court.
The ad lays out some of the most startling rulings of the Roberts Court:
The United States Supreme Court was founded to protect the American people, not American big business.
Yet recent rulings have allowed corporations to get away with paying women less than men, discriminating against the rights of older workers, dodging liability for faulty medical devices, ducking the Clean Water Act and avoid paying damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Most alarmingly, the Court has also just declared that corporations have the same rights as people, with unlimited rights to pour money into electing corporate candidates who will protect their interests.
A poll commissioned by the groups that released the ad—People For, Alliance for Justice, and MoveOn.org—found that the majority of Americans agree that the Supreme Court favors big corporations over individuals, and want a new Justice who will not be part of that trend.
In the New York Times today, Adam Liptak predicts that in the wake of Citizens United, the Supreme Court will reconsider, maybe as early as this summer, the constitutionality of limits on “soft money”—unlimited contributions to political parties. The lawyer who won the Citizens United case appealed last month a lower court decision upholding the ban on soft money donations.
Liptak explains the difficulty of keeping the soft money ban in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to give corporations essentially free reign to spend on elections:
Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, election law has relied on what many people think is an artificial distinction. The government may regulate contributions from individuals to politicians, Buckley said, but it cannot stop those same people from spending money independently to help elect those same politicians.
Why not? Contributions directly to politicians can give rise to corruption or its appearance, the court said, but independent spending is free speech. A $2,500 contribution to a politician is illegal; a $25 million independent ad campaign to elect the same politician is not.
Citizens United extended this logic to corporations. Corporate contributions to candidates are still banned, but corporations may now spend freely in candidate elections.
The distinction between contributions and spending has not been popular in the legal academy.
“Buckley is like a rotten tree,” Burt Neuborne, a law professor at New York University, wrote in 1997. “Give it a good, hard push and, like a rotten tree, Buckley will keel over. The only question is in which direction.”
The return of soft money to elections would not be a trivial matter. In the 2000 election cycle, before the McCain-Feingold bill banned the practice, soft money donations to party committees totaled over $500 million—about a sixth of the total amount spent on federal campaigns that year.
It will be interesting to see if the Roberts Court, given its track record on issues involving large bank accounts, is willing to take us back there.
This morning, Senate Democrats announced a sweeping legislative remedy to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending. The DISCLOSE Act would require the disclosure of corporate money spent on influencing elections, and it would prevent foreign companies, government contractors, and bail-out recipients from spending money in American elections. People For’s President, Michael Keegan, weighed in:
Only a constitutional amendment or new ruling can truly 'fix' Citizens United, but the DISCLOSE Act goes far in mitigating its corrosive effect on our democracy. Americans want government by the people, not corporations. But as long as corporations have the ability to pour money into elections, Americans have the right to know how that money is being spent.
The Supreme Court enabled companies to spend money on elections while hiding behind front groups, PR firms, and advocacy groups -- without any disclosure whatsoever. It also opened American elections to spending by foreign corporations, government contractors, and companies that receive billions in government bailouts. The DISCLOSE Act would close these outrageous loopholes.
Not surprisingly, the main opposition to the legislation so far has come from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has plans to spend $50 million on this fall’s elections.
The Chamber may be up for a tough fight. A PFAW poll in February found that 78% of those surveyed believe corporations should be limited in how much they spend to influence elections; 70% though corporations already had too much influence in the process. Other polls have found similar levels of displeasure—across the political spectrum—with Citizens United and the increasing role of corporate money in politics.
When the Supreme Court decided this year to open the electoral process to floods of money from corporate interests, it provoked a vehement public backlash. But Citizens United v. FEC was just the tip of the iceberg of a decade of rulings—some high-profile and some less noticed— made by a Court that has been disturbingly deferential to corporate interests. A new People For the American Way Foundation report outlines the rise of the corporate court under Chief Justice Rehnquist and the new life it has taken on in the Roberts court.
Americans across the spectrum have been startled and appalled by the Citizens United decision, which will "open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections," as President Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address. According to a Washington Post nationwide poll, more than 80% of the American people reject the Court's conclusion that a business corporation is a member of the political community entitled to the same free speech rights as citizens.
Yet, the Court's watershed ruling is the logical expression of an activist pro-corporatist jurisprudence that has been bubbling up for many decades on the Court but has gained tremendous momentum over the last generation. Since the Rehnquist Court, there have been at least five justices—and sometimes more—who tilt hard to the right when it comes to a direct showdown between corporate power and the public interest. During the Roberts Court, this trend has continued and intensified. Although there is still some fluidity among the players, it is reasonable to think of a reliable "corporate bloc" as having emerged on the Court.
Justin Fox, on his Harvard Business Review blog, has an interesting take on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. He interviews Brian Murphy, a history professor at Baruch College who studies the economics and politics of early America. The original laws of incorporation, Murphy says, were developed to organize civic organizations and municipal governments, and later were applied to economic enterprises, partly as a way to dilute their growing influence. “The intent of these laws is therefore the opposite of what the Court asserted in Citizens United,” he says.
Let me put it this way: the Founders did not confuse Boston's Sons of Liberty with the British East India Company. They could distinguish among different varieties of association — and they understood that corporate personhood was a legal fiction that was limited to a courtroom. It wasn't literal. Corporations could not vote or hold office. They held property, and to enable a shifting group of shareholders to hold that property over time and to sue and be sued in court, they were granted this fictive personhood in a limited legal context.
Early Americans had a far more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of corporations than the Court gives them credit for. They were much more comfortable with retaining pre-Revolutionary city or school charters than with creating new corporations that would concentrate economic and political power in potentially unaccountable institutions. When you read Madison in particular, you see that he wasn't blindly hostile to banks during his fight with Alexander Hamilton over the Bank of the United States. Instead, he's worried about the unchecked power of accumulations of capital that come with creating a class of bankers.
The view of corporations as “persons” was meant for legal convenience and economic risk reduction, Murphy argues, and it was the courts, not lawmakers, who started blurring the distinction between the rights of individuals and corporations.
Given the public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to Citizens United, it seems that Americans continue to understand the difference between corporations and individuals, their purpose in society, and their rights. Americans haven’t grown out of touch with the fundamental values of the Constitution—the Court has.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) invoked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s name in a Senate floor speech Tuesday warning Obama not to nominate someone who would be an automatic vote against corporate interests. He made it clear such a nomination could provoke a GOP filibuster.
“The big corporation might have the right law and facts in a particular case,” said Kyl, who noted that Roberts in his own confirmation hearing said that in a dispute between a “big guy and little guy” he would vote for whoever had the law behind him.
“You don’t go on to the bench [saying], ‘I’m always going to be against the big guy,’ ” said Kyl.
Kyl’s straw man argument not only misconstrues Obama’s words, but shows how out of touch his party has become with the American people. A People For poll in February found that a full 78% of Americans—from across the political spectrum— believe that corporations should be limited in how much they can spend to influence elections, with 70% believing that corporations already have too much influence. And asked whether President Obama should nominate a Supreme Court justice who supports limiting corporate spending in elections, 69% said yes.
And just this week, a candidate running on a platform that included a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United won a resounding victory in a congressional special election in Florida.
Given that kind of evidence, Senator Kyl might want to rethink his decision to make himself a champion of corporate interests over the rights of ordinary Americans.
For those still in doubt about the potential for corporate influence in national elections in the post-Citizens United world, it might be helpful to look at the growing sway of corporate money in state-level judicial elections.
Predictions that the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling will unleash a torrent of corporate money are wildly overblown, free speech advocates insist. As evidence, they argue that corporate money has yet to flood elections in the 26 states that already impose no limit on corporate spending.
But a closer look at state-level elections suggests that independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and other special interests are substantial. This is particularly true in judicial elections, which have gotten dramatically costlier, nastier and more controversial over the past decade. The Citizens United ruling may impact judicial races even more drastically than federal elections, some experts argue.
Campaign spending in state Supreme Court elections for the 2008 cycle topped $45 million, continuing a trend that started in the early 1990s, according to Justice at Stake, a nonprofit promoting judicial impartiality. Judicial campaign fundraising totaled $206.4 million between 2000 and 2009, according to a forthcoming Justice at Stake report, more than double the $83.3 million raised between 1990 and 1999.
Corporate money dominated those expenditures, according to Justice at Stake spokesman Charles Hall, who said some 30 percent of the $206.4 million had "clear links" to the corporate sector. Other big judicial campaign money sources were lawyers and lobbyists, who accounted for about 28 percent of the $206 million-plus total.
The Supreme Court itself highlighted the dangers of this trend in last year’s decision banning a West Virginia Supreme Court justice from participating in a case involving a man who had spent $3 million helping him get elected. The funder in question was Massey Energy Company owner Don Blakenship—who has recently earned criticism as an example of what can happen when corporations have more regulatory influence than the citizens they employ.
Justice Stevens only announced his resignation a few days ago, and already the far right is throwing around the familiar Republican talking point about a potential “activist” Supreme Court nominee:
Several days after Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his decision to retire, Republican leaders are already making it clear they'll put up a fight if President Obama nominates a left-leaning judicial activist.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said if the president wishes to avoid a filibuster, he should choose someone with "mainstream" judicial views as Steven's successor.
"If it's somebody like that, clearly outside of the mainstream, then I think every power should be utilized to protect the Constitution," Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NBC's Meet the Press.
It's when an unelected lifetime-appointed judge, or five of them use their power, unaccountable power, to redefine the meaning of the Constitution to effectuate some policy agenda, some empathy, some ideology that they have, that's what threatens the average American.
The “judicial activism” argument, which we’re sure to be hearing repeatedly in the coming weeks, rings hollow in the wake of this conservative-dominated Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. That decision, which overturned over a century of judicial precedent to hand corporations an outsized amount of influence in the electoral process, is exactly the kind of judicial act that, in Sessions’ words, “threatens the average American.”
And it’s worth noting the multiplestudies that have shown that the more conservative justices on the Supreme Court are the ones most likely to vote to strike down laws passed by Congress and decisions by federal regulators.
It’s time for conservatives to either retire the “judicial activism” argument, or start applying it to their own nominees.
Justice John Paul Stevens’ announcement that he will retire this summer marks the end of an era for the Supreme Court and a crucial opportunity for President Obama and the Senate to shape the Court’s direction.
Stevens—the last survivor of the era before Supreme Court nominations became televised partisan battlegrounds—has been a bulwark against a Court that has been moving aggressively to the right. His adamant dissent to this year’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, like his dissent in Bush v. Gore, were strong defenses of democracy and indictments of an increasingly politicized Court.
President Obama now has the chance to nominate another Justice who will prioritize the rights of ordinary Americans. People for the American Way President Michael B. Keegan said today:
“His retirement will give President Obama his second opportunity to nominate a jurist for our nation’s Highest Court. I hope he will select someone who will continue Justice Stevens’s tradition of working to ensure that individuals receive the fair treatment that our Constitution guarantees. In recent years, the Court has given extraordinary preference to powerful interests at the expense of ordinary Americans. Justice Stevens was a bulwark against that trend. Our country’s next Justice must play a similar role.”
Let’s hope that Republicans in the U.S. Senate will put aside their habits of obstructionism and support the nomination of a Justice who will continue Stevens’ strong, even-handed legacy.
In a hearing today entitled "We the People? Corporate Spending in American Elections after Citizens United,” the Senate Judiciary Committee discussed the impact of the Citizens United v. FEC and possible steps to repair the damage. In addition to touching on legislative fixes, the question of a Constitutional Amendment came up, posed by Senator Benjamin Cardin on Maryland.
Don't forget to sign our petition, calling for a Constitutional Amendment to restore government by the people.
UPDATE: YouTube has been having some problems with embedded videos. If you have trouble playing it, try double clicking the video to open it in YouTube in a new window.
Yesterday, Senators Christopher Dodd and Tom Udall introduced a constitutional amendment to correct the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. According to Senator Dodd:
Ultimately, we must cut through the underbrush and go directly to the heart of the problem, and that is why I am proposing this constitutional amendment: because constitutional questions need constitutional answers.
People for the American Way applauds Senators Dodd and Udall, Senator John Kerry, and House members like Donna Edwards, John Conyers, and Leonard Boswell, for pushing constitutional amendments. We believe that this is the only complete remedy for the grave threat posed to our democracy by the Roberts Court and its equation of corporations with individuals – a perversion of the First Amendment.
While legislation is a crucial part of the effort to repair this decision, it should be only a part of our response. Constitutional amendments are warranted in only the most extreme circumstances. This is one of them.
You can join People For the American Way’s call for a constitutional amendment by signing our petition at http://www.pfaw.org/Amend.
In the 1970s, Justices William H. Rehnquist and Byron R. White said business corporations were "creatures of the law," capable of amassing wealth but due none of the rights of voters.
By contrast, the court's current majority described a corporation as an "association of citizens" that deserves the same free-speech rights as an individual. Because speech and debate are good for democracy, they said, the public should welcome more corporate-funded campaign ads.
He also makes a cogent observation about the origin of this pro-corporate tilt.
All five justices who made up the majority in last month's case, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, were either appointed by Reagan or worked as young lawyers in the Reagan administration.
A reminder that the Supreme Court is often one of a President's most enduring legacies.
The media spent much of last week obsessing over Justice Samuel Alito's injudicious show of disapproval during the State of the Union. They went a bit overboard to be sure, but were it not for that, millions of Americans may have missed the Citizens United ruling entirely.
Citizens United, as you probably know, opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending. The 5-4 decision overturned a century of precedent and was made possible by Justice Alito -- President Bush's nominee to replace moderate Sandra Day O'Connor.
Sorely absent from last week's coverage was how far Alito's actions on the bench have departed from his words as a nominee. With that in mind I've pulled some relevant clips from the confirmation hearing.
Alito praised the principle of stare decisis (respect for precedent) throughout his hearing but hasn't let it prevent him back brashly overruling longstanding decisions. Here, in conversaton with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), he argued that the court should take limited actions and use its ability to overrule precedent sparingly:
HATCH: Does that mean that the Supreme Court should perhaps be even more cautious, even more self-restrained, since there is no appeal from any errors that they might make?
ALITO: I think that's a solemn responsibility that they have. When you know that you are the court of last resort, you have to make sure that you get it right. It is not true, in my judgment, that the Supreme Court is free to do anything that it wants. It has to follow the Constitution and it has to follow the laws. Stare decisis, which I was talking about earlier, is an important limitation on what the Supreme Court does. And although the Supreme Court has the power to overrule a prior precedent, it uses that power sparingly, and rightfully so. It should be limited in what it does.
Alito frequently said that his judicial philosophy discourages him from reaching overly broad decisions when a narrower ruling is possible. Yet he and the other conservatives went far out of their way in order to strike down as many restrictions on corporate influence in elections as possible. Here, still speaking to Senator Hatch, Alito praised narrow rulings and noted that court rulings on consitutional grounds often cannot be undone by Congress (indeed, we are coming up against that limitation now with Citizens United):
ALITO: Because a constitutional decision of the Supreme Court has a permanency that a decision on an issue of statutory interpretation doesn't have. So if a case is decided on statutory grounds, there's a possibility of Congress amending the statute to correct the decision if it's perceived that the decision is incorrect or it's producing undesirable results. I think that my philosophy of the way I approached issues is to try to make sure that I get right what I decide. And that counsels in favor of not trying to do too much, not trying to decide questions that are too broad, not trying to decide questions that don't have to be decided, and not going to broader grounds for a decision when a narrower ground is available.
Alito also made a good show of deference to the elected branches of government, arguing that the role of a judge is to interpret the law, not make public policy. He clearly disregarded these remarks to Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) when he joined with four other judges to strike down decades of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President:
SESSIONS: But we really want the court to be more modest and to draw back from some of its intervention and policy issues that are causing much angst around the country. You want to comment on that? Otherwise, Mr. Chairman, I would yield my time.
ALITO: Well, Senator, I think your policy views are much more legitimate than the policy views of the judiciary because members of Congress are elected for the purpose of formulating and implementing public policy and members of the judiciary are appointed for the purpose of interpreting and applying the law.
We face two challenges: first, to mediate the impact of the Court's decision and stop the bleeding through immediate countermeasures and, second, to think boldly about the best way to free our democracy from the dominance of big money.
Mr. Chairman, the reform ideas already circulating are promising - mandating shareholder approval of spending, prohibiting spending by domestic subsidiaries of foreign corporations and government contractors, giving candidates primetime access to the public airwaves at the lowest rates.
We must do those things quickly. But we may also need to think bigger. I think we need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals.
If you watched the State of the Union last week, you probably saw Justice Samuel Alito take exception to President Obama's entirely accurate characterization of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
Alito did not like the president making an issue of the court's truly radical intervention in politics. I disagree with Alito on the law and the policy, but I have no problem with his personal expression of displeasure.
On the contrary, I salute him because his candid response brought home to the country how high the stakes are in the battle over the conservative activism of Chief Justice John Roberts's court.
Hopefully, Justice Alito's actions at the State of the Union will help feed the conversation about the damage done by the Court's decision in Citizens United and what can be done to fix it.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lashed into Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Thursday morning on the Senate floor, calling out the swing vote who overturned a hundred years of precedent to legalize deep corporate involvement in elections.
Leahy said that, in 36 years in the Senate he had never come to the floor to criticize a court decision, but was moved to do so by the activist nature of last week's 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United case.
He personally attacked Alito, noting that his confirmation testimony was under oath, yet was proven false by his brazen and radical dismissal of a century of precedent.
On January 29, 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, restoring the rights taken away by the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. One year to the day, a new movement is afoot to correct the Court.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to protect individuals from discrimination they face in the workplace. In Ledbetter, the Supreme Court undermined that protection by holding that employees who are subjected to pay discrimination must bring a complaint within 180 days of the discriminatory compensation decision and that each paycheck that is lower because of such discrimination does not restart the clock. Advocates fought hard for a law that would reiterate Congress’ intent to hold employers accountable for their discriminatory practices and to allow employees a fair chance to challenge unlawful pay discrimination.
Advocates are now calling for another Court correction, this time in response to the Citizens United ruling, which prohibits Congress from limiting the influence of corporations in elections for public office. Not only is this a radical departure from longstanding precedent, it defies common sense: it argues that corporations and American citizens have identical free speech rights under the Constitution. As Justice Stevens pointed out in his dissent, corporations are not people. They cannot vote, they cannot hold office, and they should not be allowed to pour billions of dollars into our system of government.
Unfortunately the fix we found in for the Ledbetter decision is not enough to fix Citizens United. Legislation, while important and critically needed to mitigate the effects of the decision, may ultimately prove to be inadequate against the unfettered influx of corporate election spending. Only a constitutional amendment can restore the American people’s authority to regulate corporate influence in our elections and restore our democracy.
People For the American Way is calling for just such an amendment. Click here for more information and to sign our petition.