Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The truth will set you...SOLD!

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh
The New York Times reports that the Supreme Court is expected to issue a groundbreaking ruling concerning campaign finance.

The debate has been re-energized with the rare request for second arguments in a case concerning "Hillary: the Movie." The film was made by Citizens United, a conservative political group that, in this case, aimed at discrediting Senator Clinton both personally and politically during the 2008 election.

The film was not permitted to be distributed online or via DVD because the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws prohibit corporate money from being used in such a manner. The court could potentially negate those laws as well as overturn the 1990 decision in the case of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce which originally banned corporate money from being used to either support or oppose political candidates.

Precedents concerning the current case before the Court go much further back. In the 1886 decision of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Court extended the right of personhood to corporations (though there is considerable debate about the intention of the Court in this case, the effect remains the same). Nearly a century later in 1975, Buckley v. Valeo established a seemingly separate precedent that money constitutes a form of free expression and is thus protected under the first amendment.

Those in favor of restricting limitations on campaign finance are using the current case to connect the logical dots between 1886, 1975, and 2008. If corporations are persons, then corporations are guaranteed free speech under the first amendment. Money is a form of free speech. Therefore, limiting the amount of money a corporation can spend on any cause is a violation of the first amendment.

Logically this argument appears sound, and ordinarily I would not be against limiting free speech in any way, but I make an exception here for various reasons.

First, extending financial contributions in such a way would actually make corporations more person-like than people. People are limited to $2,400 donations to individual candidates and $30,400 to political parties per election year. Removing the cap from corporate spending places individuals' "monetary speech" below that of corporations -- though one could argue that system already exists.

Second, corporations are not actually people. The 1886 case extended the rights of individuals to corporations, but none of the responsibilities or consequences that come with those rights. An argument based on the full personhood of corporations is based on a false assumption.

Lastly, to allow infinite monetary contributions to campaigns by corporations would be an affront to representative democracy. Essentially, such a ruling would make a fact what many already assume to be true: a vote for every dollar, not for every person.

Though I am not much for argumentation on the basis of intention, I think it applies here. The creation of a corporation is intended to protect personhood by removing the business from the individual. It safeguards the personal assets of owners in the event of financial collapse or legal action. Incorporated institutions were meant to exist beyond the realm of personhood, not act on its behalf.

Moreover, the passing of the first amendment was intended to protect individuals from tyrannic rule by government; the courtroom logic that will likely play out here will place individuals under tyrannic rule by corporations. In either case, the opinions, beliefs, and values of the public become inconsequential.

Lastly, consider that the founders never considered free speech to be completely unlimited. If it were, the Constitution would not provide instances in which speech becomes criminal (i.e. treason) nor would there be similar situations in the practice of day-to-day law (i.e. perjury).

The sad news here is that we the people are probably fucked. According to The New Yorker, the Roberts Court almost always sides with industry:

In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff.

I am not a believer in the idea that corporate America is evil, and I believe corporations deserve a fair shake in the legal system, but to consistently emerge the victor in the highest court in the land points to unfairness in a different direction. This matter is something about which we should all be particularly concerned.

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