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Supreme Court Hands Elections to Corporations

By aaroncynic in News on Jan 21, 2010 9:20PM

Yesterday, we lamented a little bit about the general state of electoral politics after the special election in Massachusetts. Today, we weep are outraged over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a century old law banning corporations from directly using money to influence federal elections.

In a 5-4 decision handed down by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and backed by five Republican presidential appointees, the court ruled that corporations and unions can spend their own treasury funds on broadcast ads or billboards in favor of a particular political candidate or urging the defeat of another. Speaking for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy invoked the idea of corporate personhood, stating “The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.”

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Steven’s stated “The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races” (h/t to Navin). The U.S. Public Interest Research Group echoed those sentiments, saying via press release “lifting the ban on corporate money could further diminish the public voice in a system that already favors monied special interests, and will certainly lesson the public trust in our officials.”

The idea that a corporation should have the same rights as a flesh and blood human and all the rights afforded to an American citizen has been debated for more than a century. In 1886, the Supreme Court Case Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad featured a statement by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite which said “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” By that time, corporations already had the right to enter into legal contracts via Dartmouth College V. Woodward (1819).

As our commenters have noted, this decision by the court isn’t surprising, but it is very troubling. Plenty of corporations have used their status as a “legal person” to fight community initiatives that would be beneficial to the public, but put a dent in their profits. In addition, big business has already spent untold amounts of money lobbying lawmakers to erode rules and regulations to their conduct that would ultimately be beneficial to the public at large.

Thankfully, two restrictions to corporate spending on elections remain in place. Corporations cannot give money *directly* to candidates and still must disclose who paid for what ads. Still, it makes us wonder how long it will take for KFC to begin sponsoring billboards for whomever the Colonel wants as President.