In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court rules corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. One lawmaker describes it as the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case justifying slavery. We speak with constitutional law professor, Jamin Raskin. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin our show today looking at yesterday’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that will allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates.
In a five-to-four decision, the Court overturned century-old restrictions on corporations, unions and other interest groups from using their vast treasuries to advocate for a specific candidate. The conservative members of the Court ruled corporations have First Amendment rights and that the government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech.
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy described existing campaign finance laws as a form of censorship that have had a, quote, “substantial, nationwide chilling effect” on political speech.
In the dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens described the decision as a radical departure in the law. Stevens wrote, quote, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.” Stevens went on to write, quote, “It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process.”
To talk more about this ruling, we’re joined by Jamin Raskin. He’s a professor of constitutional law at American University and a Maryland state senator. He is the author of several books, including Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court vs. The American People.
Professor Raskin, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
JAMIN RASKIN: Good morning, Amy.
Well, we’ve had some terrible Supreme Court interventions against political democracy: Shaw v. Reno, striking down majority African American and Hispanic congressional districts; Bush v. Gore, intervening to stop the counting of ballots in Florida. But I would have to say that all of them pale compared to what we just saw yesterday, where the Supreme Court has overturned decades of Supreme Court precedent to declare that private, for-profit corporations have First Amendment rights of political expression, meaning that they can spend up to the heavens in order to have their way in politics. And this will open floodgates of millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and local elections, as Halliburton and Enron and Blackwater and Bank of America and Goldman Sachs can take money directly out of corporate treasuries and put them into our politics.
And I looked at just one corporation, Exxon Mobil, which is the biggest corporation in America. In 2008, they posted profits of $85 billion. And so, if they decided to spend, say, a modest ten percent of their profits in one year, $8.5 billion, that would be three times more than the Obama campaign, the McCain campaign and every candidate for House and Senate in the country spent in 2008. That’s one corporation. So think about the Fortune 500. They’re threatening a fundamental change in the character of American political democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about President Obama’s response? He was extremely critical, to say the least. He said, “With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics…a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Yet a number of especially conservatives are pointing out that there was — that President Obama spent more money for his presidential election than anyone in US history.
JAMIN RASKIN: OK, well, that’s a red herring in this discussion. The question here is the corporation, OK? And there’s an unbroken line of precedent, beginning with Chief Justice Marshall in the Dartmouth College case in the 1800s, all the way through Justice Rehnquist, even, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, saying that a corporation is an artificial creation of the state. It’s an instrumentality that the state legislatures charter in order to achieve economic purposes. And as Justice White put it, the state does not have to permit its own creature to consume it, to devour it.
And that’s precisely what the Supreme Court has done, suddenly declaring that a corporation is essentially a citizen, armed with all the political rights that we have, at the same time that the corporation has all kinds of economic perks and privileges like limited liability and perpetual life and bankruptcy protection and so on, that mean that we’re basically subsidizing these entities, and sometimes directly, as we saw with the Wall Street bailout, but then they’re allowed to turn around and spend money to determine our political future, our political destiny. So it’s a very dangerous moment for American political democracy.
And in other times, citizens have gotten together to challenge corporate power. The passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 is a good example, where corporations were basically buying senators, going into state legislatures and paying off senator — paying off legislators to buy US senators, and the populist movement said we need direct popular election of senators. And that’s how we got it, basically, in a movement against corporate power.
Well, we need a movement for a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not persons entitled to the rights of political expression. And that’s what the President should be calling for at this point, because no legislation is really going to do the trick.
Now, one thing Congress can do is to say, if you do business with the federal government, you are not permitted to spend any money in federal election contests. That’s something that Congress should work on and get out next week. I mean, that seems very clear. No pay to play, in terms of US Congress.
And I think that citizens, consumers, shareholders across the country, should start a mass movement to demand that corporations commit not to get involved in politics and not to spend their money in that way, but should be involved in the economy and, you know, economic production and livelihood, rather than trying to determine what happens in our elections.
AMY GOODMAN: This is considered a conservative court, Jamin Raskin, but isn’t this a very activist stance of the Supreme Court justices?
JAMIN RASKIN: Indeed. The Supreme Court has reached out to strike down a law that has been on the books for several decades. And moreover, it reached out when the parties to the case didn’t even ask them to decide it. The Citizens United group, the anti-Hillary Clinton group, did not even ask them to wipe out decades of Supreme Court case law on the rights of corporations in the First Amendment. The Court, in fact, raised the question, made the parties go back and brief this case, and then came up with the answer to the question that the Court itself, or the five right-wing justices themselves, posed here.
There would have been lots of other ways for those conservative justices to find that Citizens United’s anti-Hillary Clinton movie was protected speech, the simplest being saying, “Look, this was pay-per-view; it wasn’t a TV commercial. So it’s not covered by McCain-Feingold.” But the Court, or the five justices on the Court, were hell-bent on overthrowing McCain-Feingold and the electioneering communication rules and reversing decades of precedent.
And so, now the people are confronted with a very serious question: Will we have the political power and vision to mobilize, to demand a constitutional amendment to say that it is “we, the people,” not “we, the corporations”?
AMY GOODMAN: Jamin Raskin, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of constitutional law at American University’s School of Law and a Maryland state senator.