In other words, the 7 million American millionaires have greater free speech than 275 million ordinary folks. The millionaires can take out multiple full-page ads in newspapers and buy expensive TV spots. The vast majority of Americans cannot afford such First Amendment “freedom.”
The ruling unmasks any pretense that America is a democracy. It re-emphasizes that the Roberts Court is utterly pro-business and pro-Republican.
Grant Leneaux, Western tradition professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, called the decision what it was: “the legally sanctioned triumph of plutocratic capitalism.”
The New York Times observed caustically: “The Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the Robber Baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to win elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.”
And columnist E.J. Dionne denounced the decision as “an astonishing display of judicial arrogance, overreach and unjustified activism.”
For decades right-wingers complained about judicial activism when the Warren Court was ruling for people, not property. But the real judicial activism long has come from the judicial right — to the great detriment of the nation.
Justice Stevens wrote a 90-page dissent laced with outrage and sarcasm.
He said the majority had made “a grave error in putting corporate speech on the same level as people speech,” that the majority had “blazed through the court’s precedents” to overrule or disavow “a body of case law.”
“The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens said. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.”
The decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission corrupts democracy. It allows corporations to dominate the marketplace of ideas.
As long ago as 1809 the Supreme Court said corporations are “a mere legal entity,” not people. In 1946 the court made the same point: “Corporations are not entitled to all of the constitutional protections that private individuals have.”
The ruling is a scathing indictment of the Roberts Court. The court denied First Amendment protection to a harmless and humorous banner unfurled by an Alaskan high school kid but gave First Amendment protection to powerful and baleful corporations.
The Roberts Court is the modern version of the Five Horsemen of Reaction that plagued the country in the 1930s. Its Citizens United ruling joins two other odious decisions in Supreme Court history: Dred Scott and Bush v. Gore.
The Dred Scott ruling by the Taney Court in 1857 said blacks were inferior beings who “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” It also allowed slavery to be extended to the territories.
Bush v. Gore, decided by the Rehnquist Court in 2000, stopped the Florida vote recount to rob Al Gore of the presidency. Again Stevens angrily dissented. He rightly pointed out the obvious: The court is not an “impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Moreover, the reactionary judicial activists on the Roberts Court are likely to decide the law of the land for decades, thwarting even mildly liberal presidents and “vetoing” any progressive measures.
Frank Rich, New York Times essay journalist, notes sourly: The decision gives corporations “an even greater stranglehold over a government they already regard as a partially owned offshore subsidiary.”
The Nation continues the denunciation, citing the 1990 ruling by the Supreme Court in the Austin case which lambasted “the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of corporate wealth.”
Justice Byron White, hardly a radical except in the perfervid minds of right-wingers, dissented in the 1978 Bellotti corporate advertising case.
White said corporations had an unfair advantage in the political process. “The communications of profitmaking corporations are not an integral part of the development of ideas or mental exploration and of the affirmation of self.”
At his confirmation hearing, Roberts said the job of a justice was simply “to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” As chief justice, however, Roberts is pitching and batting.
No close follower of the court believed Roberts’ pretense of impartiality. As a Washington corporate lawyer he made $1 million a year. After his court’s enormous gift to corporations, Roberts had been woefully underpaid.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at UNR. You can reach him at email@example.com.