The Corporatist Five
The Supremes heard that Citizens United case yesterday, and Dahlia Lithwick sez be very afraid.
When we first met this case, it involved a narrow question about whether a 90-minute documentary attacking Hillary Clinton could be regulated as an "electioneering communication" under McCain-Feingold. The relevant provision bars corporations and unions from using money from their general treasuries for "any broadcast, cable or satellite communications" that feature a candidate for federal election during specified times before a general election. A federal court of appeals agreed with the FEC that the movie could be regulated. Citizens United, the conservative, nonprofit advocacy group that produced the film, appealed. The issue last spring was whether a feature-length documentary movie was core political speech or a Swift Boat ad. But the court surprised everyone when it ordered the case reargued in September, this time tackling the constitutionality of McConnell and Austin.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas are already on record wanting to overturn these cases. Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts have been inclined to wait. The question today is whether we wait no more [...]
Solicitor General Kagan stands to defend the FEC, not in a frock coat but a tasteful blue pantsuit, and when Scalia pounces on her, two sentences into her opening, she scolds him as if he were an impudent 2-L: "I will repeat what I said, Justice Scalia: For 100 years this court, faced with many opportunities to do so, left standing the legislation that is at issue in this case." Kagan is so loose and relaxed, you'd think this was her 100th argument. Which allows Roberts to dispense with the kid gloves and accuse her, respectively of "giving up" an argument she made in her opening brief and "changing positions." When she is asked, in effect, if she wants to lose this case in a big way or a little way, Kagan is eventually forced to reply, "If you are asking me, Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses if it has to lose, the answer is yes."
One of the ways the Roberts Court hopes to make all conflicting case law in the campaign finance realm disappear is to blame all prior bad case law on Kagan. When everyone is thoroughly confused about what rationale the government may advance in order to limit corporate spending, Roberts can gleefully conclude that all of Austin "is kind of up for play. …" Poof. And Austin is a problem no more.
As Kennedy bemoans the "ongoing chill" of limiting corporate speech, Scalia recites a lyric ode to the greatness of America's "single shareholder corporations. … The local hairdresser, the local auto repair shop, the local new car dealer." Kagan points again to the "100-year-old judgment of Congress that these expenditures would corrupt the federal system," forcing Scalia to retort that "Congress has a self-interest" and that "I doubt that one can expect a body of incumbents to draw election restrictions that do not favor incumbents." Kagan corrects him, noting that "in fact, corporate and union money go overwhelmingly to incumbents." And that this law "may be the single most self-denying thing that Congress has ever done."
Kagan goes on to distinguish humans from corporations by pointing out that "we have beliefs; we have convictions; we have likes and dislikes." When she urges that it's in the corporation's self-interest to maximize profits and that "individuals are more complicated than that," Scalia does another verse on "the new auto dealer who has just lost his dealership." It's a vision of fluffy corporate bunnies so compelling, it makes you want to give Exxon a great big hug and an African violet for the holidays [...]
Olson very effectively uses his five minutes of rebuttal time to taunt Kagan for the government's changed positions. And while it looks as though there are five votes to fundamentally alter the way American elections will work, we've been through enough renditions of the Roberts Court slapping litigants around at oral argument then loving on them in decisions to make such predictions unwise. Of course, as Waxman suggests in his closing, it does take a somewhat "self-starting" institution to be deciding a case about campaign finance laws in which no litigant has directly raised the issues and no factual record even exists.
Aside from how wonderful it is to read Dahlia Lithwick, this severely depressed me. As we already have what amounts to corporate control of government, opening up the meager restrictions on campaign finance through corporate entities may not mean as much as everybody assumes. Corporations currently funnel hundreds of millions to candidates through PACs anyway. But two things stand out upon reading this. First of all, the kind of significant campaign finance reform we need right now - in particular public financing to level the playing field - will never make it through the brick wall of the corporatist Roberts Court, which clearly has a lock on these issues for 20 years at a minimum. Second, if you read through these arguments, and the general set of opinions of the Court over the last term, you can only conclude that George W. Bush was a successful President. With a legacy that far exceeds his lack of accomplishments in domestic or foreign policy. Bush handed the Court to the Federalist Society right for a decade or more, and while the legal system can still put up a fight with respect to civil liberties, on most issues the ultimate answer will fall on the side of the corporation over the people every single time without question. And that's a frightening prospect.
I think the only path to checking this power lies at the state level and with corporate charters. But state interests can be arguably more corruptible than federal ones.