Many of those commenting on the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission have focused on the power grab part. I agree. It was unnecessary for the court to go so far when there were several less-radical grounds available. It was audacious to seize the opportunity to overrule precedents when the parties had not pressed this issue and the lower courts not considered it. It was the height of activism to usurp the judgments of Congress and state legislatures about how best to prevent corruption of the political process.
"If it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more," a wise judge once wrote. That was Chief Justice John Roberts -- back when -- and dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens rightly turned that line against him.
As bad as the court's activism, though, was its shoddy scholarship.
First, the majority flung about dark warnings of "censorship" and "banned" speech as if upholding the existing rules would leave corporations and labor unions with no voice in the political process. Untrue. Under federal election law before the Supreme Court demolished it, corporations and labor unions were free to say whatever they wanted about political candidates whenever they wanted to say it. They simply were not permitted to use unlimited general treasury funds to do so. Instead, they were required to use money raised by their political action committees from employees and members. This is hardly banning speech.
Second, in the face of logic and history, the majority acted as if there could be no constitutional distinction between a corporation and a human being. Untrue. The Supreme Court has long held that corporations are considered "persons" under the Constitution and therefore entitled to its protections. For more than a century, Congress has barred corporations from making direct contributions to political candidates, with no suggestion that it must treat corporate persons the same as real ones; that prohibition stands, at least for now. The "conceit" of corporate personhood, as Stevens called it, does not mandate absolute equivalence. That corporations enjoy free speech protections does not mean they enjoy every protection afforded an actual person. Is a corporation entitled to vote? To run for office?Read More