In their landmark decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, five activist Supreme Court justices abolished a century of campaign-finance laws designed to curb the Gilded-Age robber barons’ power to corrupt the political process. One overturned law, barring corporate financing of federal legislation, was signed by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907. This Tillman Act was a response to the 1896 election of President McKinley, who overwhelmed his Democratic opponent with corporate money.
At the intellectual roots of this decision are two so-called “legal fictions.” These are metaphysical constructs fabricated by lawyers to justify ridiculous legal doctrines when they can’t think of anything better. According to one legal fiction, money – i.e., political campaign donations – is equivalent to free speech. In the other, the court defines corporations as human beings, enjoying the same civil rights – i.e., free speech – as individual citizens.
The triumphant justices obviously ignored their decision’s logical implications. If money is free speech, how can courts ban monetary contributions to judges or jurors by parties to lawsuits, or even defendants in criminal trials? According to the court’s logic, mere involvement in a judicial proceeding should pose no obstacle to your First Amendment right to free speech. If money is free speech, judicial anti-bribery statutes should be declared unconstitutional. Free speech, in the court’s opinion, is a sacred right, not to be trifled with to serve less important goals.
In his ruling opinion, Justice Arthur Kennedy argues that you can’t prove campaign contributions buy legislators votes. By the same logic, you can’t prove that donations to judges would buy judicial decisions. You know only that both instances involve gargantuan conflicts of interest.
Compounding the logical problems posed by the money-equals-speech metaphor, treating a corporation as a person also poses big problems. In practical effect, the court identifies a corporation as its CEO and directors, for they alone will direct the corporation’s now unlimited political donations. As any stockholder can attest, no corporation even makes the slightest attempt to determine its owners’ political opinions. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has given corporate managers the right to spend unconsulted owners’ money to promote their private political interests. It’s closer to farce than serious judicial reasoning.
While honoring their dubious legal fictions, the five “strict constructionists” demonstrated unprecedented contempt for the well-founded legal doctrine of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”). Despite his personal opposition to the death penalty, Justice John Paul Stevens deferred to stare decisis by voting to uphold a death sentence.
But Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. lacks Justice Stevens’ principles. At his 2005 confirmation hearing, Roberts testified, “It is a jolt to the legal system when you overrule a precedent.” Yet in Citizens United, Roberts overrode not one precedent, but seven Supreme Court precedents, extending over 103 years of history.
Citizens United is more than a jolt to the legal system; it portends a probable degradation of our already money-corrupted political system. It will undoubtedly accelerate our transition from a democratic republic into a full-fledged plutocracy, ruled by an alliance of venal politicians and rich socialists like the hoggish bankers, forever gorging themselves at the public trough.
C.W. Griffin has lived in Ahwatukee Foothills since 1988. He is a retired consulting engineer and a published author.