The Supreme Court's declaration last week that corporations are people with an unlimited right to spend money on political campaigns has set off a frenzy of blogospheric speculation about just how far the doctrine of legal personhood will go. In fact, one corporation has even declared its candidacy for Congress.
The case, Citizen's United v. FEC, concerns CU's 2008 attempt to run a feature-length video, "Hillary: The Movie" attacking then-Sen. Hilary Clinton's run for President. Although CU called the film a documentary, the FEC said it was an attack ad, and because some of its funding was from corporate sources, its broadcast was illegal. The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision argued that corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals, and their donations constitute speech. The High Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the 1907 Tillman Act, which bars corporations and banks from contributing to federal elections.
Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has a nice backgrounder on the legal doctrine of corporations as people. And here's Murray Hill, Incorporated's campaign advert to become the next Congressional rep from the great state of Maryland. (h/t Nicole Belle)
I suppose we should take comfort from the fact that Murray Hill is at least an American corporation -- as far as can be determined from its website, anyway. One of the big worries about the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC is that it will allow foreign corporate money to dominate US elections. Pres. Obama's warning about that possibility triggered Associate Justice Samuel Alito's now-infamous silent, head-shaking apparent rebuttal, "not true."
As Elizabeth Lynch notes, foreign corporations are prohibited from contributing directly to political campaigns by the Federal Election Campaigns Act. (You can read the FEC rules here. Denniston suggests that Alito might have had that law in mind in his presumed retort to the President during the SOTU.) Lynch points out that it might be difficult to justify keeping US subsidiaries of foreign corporations out of the election process, even when they are directly influenced by foreign governments. She's specifically talking about China, but there's also Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, and a host of others. Lynch writes:
"Citizens United allows for the very real possibility of the Chinese government’s direct influence in our elections through a Chinese corporation’s U.S. subsidiary. While no official number exists about the number of Chinese companies with a U.S. subsidiary corporation, Dan Harris, a partner at the international law firmHarris & Moure and editor of the China Law Blog, believes that the number is substantial...."
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was moved to express concern about the possible impact of the ruling on judicial elections in remarks before Georgetown law students last week:
"In invalidating some of the existing checks on campaign spending, the majority inCitizens United has signaled that the problem of campaign contributions in judicial elections might get considerably worse and quite soon."
Blogger Lyndsay Beyerstein reported that the AFL-CIO supported the Citizens United's suit against the Federal Elections Commission, contesting points in the McCain Feingold campaign finance law that restrict union spending on campaigns:
The AFL-CIO has obvious practical reasons to want to ease restrictions on political advertising. The AFL-CIO proper spent over $1.3 million to influence federal politics in 2008, according to the database Open Secrets. Its affilated unions spent even more.
However, the AFL-CIO leadership has taken pains to distance itself from the Court's decision. A Jan. 21 statement issued by union president Richard Trumka slammed the ruling, saying it:
"[W]rongly treated corporate expenditures the same as union expenditures, contrary to the arguments we made in our brief in this case. Unions, unlike businesses, are democratically-controlled, nonprofit membership organizations representing working men and women across the country, and their independent speech should accordingly be given greater protection."
I'm just waiting for some corporate partisan to respond that corporations are democratic too, because their shareholders can vote.
Meanwhile Sen. Al Franken (D. Minn) has introduced the American Elections Act of 2010, in direct response to Pres. Obama's SOTU call for a law bolstering prohibitions on election contributions from foreign individuals or corporations. John Hall, D-NY introduced a similar bill, HR 4517: The Freedom From Foreign-Based Manipulation in American Elections Act of 2010, to the House last Tuesday.
If you've got a position on the proposed legislation, you should weigh in now, before democracy is auctioned off to the highest bidder.
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