Corporations, Corruption, and the New Supreme Court Ruling

Diana Novak

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs. FEC that the government has no business regulating the campaign contributions of corporations and unions. Citing First Amendment rights to free speech, the court’s slim majority (5-4) agreed that corporations should be given the same rights as individuals. That means that corporations (including unions; i.e., any incorporated organization) can now purchase their own campaign ads in support of candidates, so long as they aren't created by the candidates themselves. According to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, these "independent expenditures" are considered "political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate." Surprise, surprise: The precedent-overturning decision has triggered significant protest within the progressive community. In an attempt to help individuals compete with corporations, is circulating a petition to pass a bill to allow public financing of elections. Mother Jones' Nick Baumann argues that Chief Justice Roberts and his conservative colleagues "can no longer avoid the label of "activist" judges. They've turned the political system upside-down." And, as The American Prospect's Heather Gerken explains, previous cases have already restricted the government's campaign finance regulations-- "this was just the final nail in the coffin." Gerken writes: The truth is that the most important line in the decision was not the one overruling Austin. It was this one: "ingratiation and access … are not corruption." For many years, the Court had gradually expanded the corruption rationale to extend beyond quid pro quo corruption (donor dollars for legislative votes). It had licensed Congress to regulate even when the threat was simply that large donors had better access to politicians or that politicians had become "too compliant with the[ir] wishes." Indeed, at times the Court went so far as to say that even the mere appearance of "undue influence" or the public's "cynical assumption that large donors call the tune" was enough to justify regulation. "Ingratiation and access," in other words, were corruption as far as the Court was concerned. Justice Kennedy didn't say that the Court was overruling these cases. But that's just what it did.

Diana Novak is a fall 2009 editorial intern at In These Times and a contributor to Chicago INNERVIEW. She moonlights as a trial lawyer assistant.
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