Court Ignores Precedent, Creates Corporate Monster

January 26, 2010 2:18 am0 comments
David Murdter

Very few Supreme Court cases these days receive the sort of attention given to Citizens United v. FEC, but then again, very few Supreme Court cases drastically alter legal precedent as much as this case has.

Very few Supreme Court cases these days receive the sort of attention given to Citizens United v. FEC, but then again, very few Supreme Court cases drastically alter legal precedent as much as this case has.
You’ve probably heard the news: the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that limitations placed on campaign contributions made by corporations violate corporations’ right to free speech. The Supreme Court was defending the notion of “corporate personhood” — the idea that corporations are afforded the same constitutionally sanctioned rights as individuals. This ruling inflicted considerable damage on current legislation and legal precedent alike, rendering related parts of the McCain-Feingold Act (which placed restrictions on corporate soft money) unconstitutional, and overruling two previous Supreme Court cases: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates) and McConnell v. FEC (which upheld corporate campaign restrictions).
The consequence of this ruling is fairly simple yet deeply troubling — corporations are now more or less free to spend all they want on political campaigns.
Some are of the opinion that the decision was a step in the right direction, and that this ruling will empower voters and help the middle class. I am not one of them.
Those in favor of the decision substantiate their position by defending free speech, arguing that any legislation that places limitations on what an individual (which is essentially what corporations are considered to be) can spend on a campaign inherently violates free speech and thus the First Amendment. Beyond that, a few politicians, such as Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell (yes, the same McConnell from the now overturned McConnell v. FEC), are among the decision’s defenders. Gingrich’s reasoning is that it allows for middle-class political challengers to more effectively combat highly advantaged incumbents by aligning themselves with corporate interests. Furthermore, he argues that this court decision doesn’t necessarily benefit one political interest over another; he cites the fact that labor unions benefit equally. I can see the appeal of these arguments, but I find some of their premises to be highly fallacious.
Put briefly, the notion that corporate interests and the interests of the average citizen are congruent is a rather lofty assumption. And, in a world where politicians are constantly under the threat of having corporations affected by potential legislation inject massive sums of money into the coffers of their opponents, passing legislation in the purview of citizens and consumers (environmental legislation, workers rights laws, consumer protection, etc.) will be much more difficult.
These arguments have been repeated at great length, and in that sense, what I’m writing isn’t new. But as I thought more about the whole debate, I became curious: how did we even arrive at the premise that corporations have equally protected first amendment rights to begin with?
To answer this question requires a bit of a history lesson, but I promise, it’ll be worthwhile (I’m also running out of space, so it’ll be brief as well).
Although there have been many Supreme Court cases dealing with the subject of corporate personhood, the type of corporate personhood we’ve come to know and loathe today wasn’t the result of an actual decision, but rather was inserted ex post facto. Let me explain.
It started with the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. In the interest of space, I won’t regurgitate every detail of the trial; however, I would strongly encourage you to look up the decision. You may notice one glaring problem: the written decision makes no mention of corporate personhood whatsoever.
So how did the case end up being cited as legal precedent for corporate personhood? The court reporter, a man by the name of J.C. Bancroft Davis, included in the headlines of his notes a quote by Chief Justice Waite which stated that all the Justices agreed with the idea that the 14th amendment applied equally to corporations.
That’s it.
Because of those extraneous notes, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad became cited as precedent for what has become our modern conception of corporate personhood. There was no substantive debate on the matter, no written decision, and certainly no legal, moral or philosophical justification for it.
Which brings me back to the recent ruling: I can understand why corporate personhood makes sense in some respects. Much like individuals, corporations need to be able to buy and sell land, hire and fire, maintain continuity throughout the lives and deaths of their proprietors, etc. To say, however, that corporations are deserving of unencumbered First Amendment rights, and that to limit their campaign contributions is somehow contradictory to the intent of the Constitution, is a warrantless and historically baseless claim.
This decision does nothing more than perpetuate an inaccurate reading of the Constitution, while simultaneously destroying decades of hard-won campaign finance reform. The uproar is well deserved –– the prospect of creating fair campaigns and elections was dealt a major blow, the effects of which I’m positive we’ll be seeing come the next election cycle.
David Murdter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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