Citizens United court case gives more power to the powerful
2011 has been the year of the political bodies. Bodies awakened and energized all over the world, starting in the spring in North Africa and spreading throughout the Arab world in protest of dictatorship and totalitarian regimes. The energy traveled to the bodies of Spanish youth against unemployment and Chilean youth in the name of education reform. The soul of the Arab Spring permeated repressed bodies all over the world until it finally reached American soil and melted into an American fall. Bodies across the nation, centered mainly in New York City, have been energized to defend themselves, their rights and their lost power.
The irony is that the enemy of these energized bodies is yet another body — the corporate body. In January 2010, the Supreme Court decided in the landmark case (Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission) that corporations can legally act as bodies and therefore have such rights, mainly those of the First Amendment. In New York, tired souls of citizens have been re-energized against the giant soulless bodies of Wall Street. Thousands of people have occupied Wall Street because corporations have occupied their rights.
Power Beyond the People
There is a long and complex history of corporate takeover in the United States, yet this case marks exactly where that control was solidified. The Citizens United case started in Jan. 2008, in which the non-profit corporation, Citizens United, wanted to air and publicize a movie against Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The problem, however, was that it violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or the McCain-Feingold Act, which prohibited the use of any promotional election material funded by corporations or any corporate or union money.
In March 2009, the case arrived to the Supreme Court.
By the following Jan., the newly achieved Republican majority struck down the McCain-Feingold Act 5-4, despite an impassioned dissent by seasoned justice, John Paul Stephens. In turn, Citizens United received the right to air the anti-Clinton commercial. The decision, authored by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, gave First Amendment protections to corporations and unions — protections reserved in the Bill of Rights to people alone.
The highest court in the nation essentially deemed corporations equal to citizens. It gives them personhood. It gave them equal rights and their new-found right to free speech allows them to donate to campaigns and participate in elections.
John Nichols, political commentator and Washington, D.C. correspondent for The Nation magazine, explained the potential threat this poses to the political system.
“When they have political power at that level, that’s a very dangerous thing because it allows a small group of self-interested institutions to effectively define our government,” Nichols said.
U.S. corporate profits reached an all-time high at the end of 2010, reaching $1.68 trillion. Even if only one percent of that amount was contributed to a political campaign it would be more than any has ever seen — more than President Barack Obama spent on his campaign by millions and more than the entire congress spent on their campaigns combined. This means that running elections must now be done to please corporations and, to win said election, will mean to be forever indebted to them. With financial resources beyond the wildest dreams of any individual, corporations do not have the power of the people — they have power beyond the people.
Corporate Body Created by Conservative Party
Unlike most positions of power in the U.S. government, Supreme Court justices are not elected, but rather appointed by the president. Justices cannot be removed until they retire or pass. The day Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2006, could be marked as the day this case began. The liberal judge announced her retirement soon after George W. Bush became president. Bush immediately looked for a replacement who would share his own views. He turned to conservative judge Samuel Alito. Soon thereafter, Alito, a conservative, replaced O’Connor, a liberal, and officially gave the right-wing a majority in the Supreme Court.
In the 2010 ruling, the court was cleanly split between four liberal judges and five conservative – two of which appointed by Bush. On the conservative end –Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito, Jr. — followed Justice Anthony Kennedy’s conclusion. Justice John Paul Stephens was joined by the three other liberal members of the court — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — in his dissent.
Justice Kennedy’s conclusion argued that preventing corporations from funding campaign ads would be a violation to citizens’ free speech and the right to public opinion because according to the Constitution, citizens have those rights and corporations are made up of citizens.
Justice Stephen’s now-famous 90-page dissent went on the absolute offensive against Kennedy’s position — denouncing it, attacking it and disproving it.
“The rule announced today — that Congress must treat corporations exactly like human speakers in the political realm — represents a radical change in the law,” Stephens wrote. “The court’s decision is at war with the views of generations of Americans.”
Nichols reacted similarly. He explained that the Court’s highest value is in interpreting arcane matters in law, not creating something entirely new —“activist law,” as he called it.
“My sense is that the court very much went beyond its authority,” said Nichols. “It was a lawless decision.”
The McCain-Feingold Act, which prohibited the use of any promotional election material funded by corporations or any corporate or union money, was a law that passed through Congress. It was created by democratically elected officials, voted for by the people and passed into law through a more or less democratic process. It was overruled, however, by the Supreme Court, which is elected not by the people, but by the president. The decision was determined solely by their left or right ideological alignment in the court. Stephens did not fail to address that in his dissent.
Stephens said, “The only relevant thing that has changed is the composition of this court.”
Getting Back the Citizens’ Exclusive Rights
In his Jan. 2010 State of the Union address, Obama said that the (Citizens United v. FEC) decision “reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests … to spend without limit in our elections.”
Over a year later, protesters all over the United States have taken to demonstrating against those same special interests as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Now, the bodies of the 99 percent have chosen to use their First Amendment rights of assembly and petition to call for their government officials to be by, for and of the people, not the corporate 1 percent whose interests reflect nothing but their own.
Jimmy Williams is a former corporate lobbyist who is now the executive director of the Get Money Out Foundation.
“The Americans are ripe for movement, “ Williams said, “I think America is desperate, hungry, [and] thirsty for anything that’ll fix the system.”
Due to the polarized makeup of the Supreme Court, the ultimate resolution is a constitutional amendment. It is far from an easy task, but organizations such as Get Money Out Foundation, Move to Amend and Free Speech for People have already moved on the objective.
“We have structural ability to deal with it in our society, and the primary way to do that is to amend the constitution currently, reasserting that … corporations are not human beings,” Nichols said. “And while they may have rights and privileges, they should not be accorded rights as extension of some definition of them as human beings.”
Other solutions have been proposed for the meantime. The Obama administration has called for disclosure, attempting to order that all corporations seeking government grants and contracts must publicly disclose any political contributions. Organizations like the Center for Political Accountability have called on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to develop rules to require the disclosure of political spending by corporations.
While Nichols fears that the current Supreme Court won’t hesitate to overturn these small reforms in favor of corporations, he said it would be a mistake not to work toward the goal on all levels. He called for a “multi-tiered response,” that aims for a constitutional amendment, yet seeks local resolutions as well.
While the response from the Tea Party Movement differs greatly from the response of Occupy Wall Street, Williams suggests that it shows that both sides “are pretty much dead center in the exact same spot which is that they agree that something is wrong with our political democracy.”
In his heated dissent, Justice Stephens also mentioned that the borderline unanimous opposition against this decision would transcend party politics.
Stephens said, “While American democracy is imperfect few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once warned that treating corporate spending as the First Amendment equivalent of individual free speech is “to confuse metaphor with reality.”
The metaphorical corporate body has robbed the rights intended for the real bodies. The bodies of the voters have lost the rights given to them by their inherent humanity to the fictional, yet, unbridled corporate person.
Real people have responded by occupying. Protestors are making it very clear that the Bill of Rights does not begin with “We the corporations.”
“America’s political process is riddled with the cancer. The body is filled with cancer, “ says Williams, “I want to rid the body, the American political body of cancer — of money.”
Once again, it has been all about the bodies. It was the polarized political bodies in party politics that created the corporate bodies, forgetting entirely about the only bodies that really matters — our own. They created bodies, but forgot souls.
Merdina Ljekperic is a junior journalism and politics major who is currently only occupying her couch. Email her at mljekpe1[at]ithaca.edu.