An Anti-Human Supreme Court

In a stunning decision that overrules precedent, the Supreme Court has ruled (pdf) that corporations can spend unlimited funds from their general treasury on political campaigns. The court many have the law on its side, using a literal reading of the First Amendment:

“Although the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech,” §441b’s prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is an outright ban on speech, backed by criminal sanctions.”

It seems to me that a strictly literal interpretation of the First Amendment would also prohibit any legislation preventing telemarketing robocalls from computers (thus awarding computers the rights of individuals).

Actually, the Court was not strictly literal in its decision, in that it wrote:

“Laws burdening such speech are subject to strict scrutiny, which requires the Government to prove that the restriction “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” WRTL, 551 U. S., at 464. This language provides a sufficient framework for protecting the interests in this case. Premised on mistrust of governmentalpower, the First Amendment stands against attempts to disfavor certain subjects or viewpoints or to distinguish among different speakers, which may be a means to control content. The Government may also commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers. There is no basis for the proposition that, in the political speech context, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers.”

So the Court, in fact, decided that to distinguish between human beings and corporations was discriminatory and unconstitutional. Corporations are essentially granted the rights of individuals, even though unlike individuals, they’re only mandate is to seek profit and not to act as citizens of a democracy (it’s not clear to me, but I think the ruling means that foreign corporations are also free to spend unlimited funds on U.S. political races).

Not being a lawyer, I can’t really speak authoritatively to the Court’s legal logic. However, it does seem to me that the instinct to read literally from texts is a reflection of a religious mode of thinking–as if God himself guided the hand of Thomas Jefferson as he wrote the text of the First Amendment.

We secular people are more attuned to the idea that rules are not infallible, and good judgment is needed when to apply them. It certainly does say that “Congress shall make no law…” but in our experience, any rule taken as infallible is likely to lead us astray in some cases.

Certainly Thomas Jefferson didn’t have computer robot callers in mind when he wrote the First Amendment (not even Christians claim he was a prophet–and Thomas Jefferson wasn’t even a Christian!).

It shouldn’t have to be necessary to amend the Constitution to give it the flexibility to accomodate good judgment. The amendment process is so unwieldy that it is essentially impossible to change when there is not an overwhelming public consensus.

My empathy and compassion as a Humanist extends to other human beings and also to sentient beings of other species. While corporations have their uses, they are legal fictions, not human beings.

I think this is an issue that should unite liberals and conservatives. While certain political operatives may be salivating at the prospect of corporate spending in support of their candidates, the likely result of this ruling, if it cannot be altered through legislation, which is questionable, is that governments will be increasingly run for the benefit of corporations and use their taxing power to raise funds to pay for contracts to said corporations. This will undermine both liberal hopes for more equality and conservative hopes for a less costly government.

Robotic literalism is bad all around.


15 Responses to “An Anti-Human Supreme Court”

  1. January 22, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    This goes back to weird and controversial jurisprudence interpreting the 14th amendment guarantee of due process – which Congress intended for the formerly non-citizen slave population but which the Supreme Court used to give corporations the same rights as persons.

    Lawyers and/or historians should check the above for accuracy! But I think it’s broadly correct. It’s also sick.

  2. January 22, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    I see the debate between strict constructionism in constitutional law vs. liberal interpretation parallels the debate between fundamentalism and liberalism in religion, and for the same basic reasons. Some people take a “legalistic” approach that emphasizes following what’s in the rule book, and other think it’s better to use judgment to adapt the rules to the situation. One might argue that lawyers and judges should indeed be legalistic. However, I’m not a lawyer, and I think legalism is bad policy.

    But the point about the 14th admendment shows that conservatives adhere to the “original intent” of the law more often when it suits their interests, and when it does not, they can get creative too.

  3. January 23, 2010 at 12:04 am

    I have never understood by what arcane reasoning “money” is equated with “speech” under the American constitution. Can anyone enlighten me?

  4. January 23, 2010 at 12:49 am

    The best government money can buy, and the largest example of corruption in the modern world.
    Find the word “lobbyist” in the US Constitution, or do something about it.

    Send your taxes to the UN instead.

  5. January 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Equating the spending of money with ‘speech’ is a recent move; more fundamental is the equating of corporations with ‘persons.’ That’s always been a highly controversial interpretation – for obvious reasons: corporations aren’t persons! And shouldn’t be treated as rights-bearing entities in the way persons should be.

    What I don’t understand is why such a silly idea could ever pass muster. But it did, and it’s just been re-instated in a big way.

  6. January 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Where is this blog based? It’s four hours east of me – which puts it in the Atlantic Ocean.

  7. January 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    We’re in Boston, but I see that I didn’t correct update the time for the shift from Daylight Savings to Standard Time. Apparently, wordpress doesn’t do that automatically, I’ve fixed for now–until I forget in March to correct it again.

    We’re associated with The New Humanism,


    the online magazine published by Harvard Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein, the author of the book, Good Without God.

  8. 8 Wendell Refior
    January 24, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Great critique of this cowardly ruling – follows like lemmings to the sea to die without out a conscience only pawns of the right-wing fundamentalists who tend toward fascist or authoritarian views of power and control of lowly citizens and workers.

  9. January 24, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Heh, that explains it. I’m glad you’re not bobbing around on a raft.

    I knew about the New Humanism…despite temporarily confusing you with the New Humanist.

  10. 10 Paul Creeden
    January 25, 2010 at 10:28 am

    I share your opinions on this. I am wondering how long it will be before Geico Gecko will be running for President.

  11. January 25, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    The recent Supreme Court judgment undercuts commonsense so badly, that it is almost humorous. It is as if they had said… Hear ye and hark ye to Profoundly Blind Justice Inc: From now on, sure threats to the quality of information that a democratic society requires for comprehensive health are to be protected by law. Therefore, inasmuch as negatives universally contend with positives, bad social outcomes are always possible, but now more probable with the help of this court. Consequently, since citizens in democracies would do well to understand conflict-resolution at large, this decision aims to make more conflict for citizens to find difficulty understanding. On this basis, as the public attempts to govern the quality of political, economic, and social leadership, this law assures that the public will not be lawfully helped to disallow corporations from compromising truth. Henceforth, as the commercial law of the land is now to aid inadequate preparation for effective citizenship, droves of candidates are now lawfully protected to comfortably gain support, by never daring to rise above being a corporate laky. In the process, as links between limits in public vision and political ties to power and greed increase, this court rules that truth is to be defined by whatever power through unethical leadership chooses to dishonestly promote. Be it therefore known then that as unethical leadership capitalizes on varying degrees of inadequate public perceptions of truth, the character of how and what our citizens are too reliably understand is to become subject to the character of how, what, and where leadership is tied to power and greed. Now then, before God, Country, and Yo Mama, the character of our nation’s capacities for genuine conflict-resolution are to be shaped by deceit, selfishness, and defunct moral interest in genuine public service. Be it now known that respect for the nation’s civic health is not the lawful concern of politicians; and most certainly not while they (and we) are in the act of bending over for corporations! Furthermore, consequent to this law’s guarantee for evermore links between limits in public vision and chaos as a public right, by this law, inadequate preparation for effective electoral clarity is ordained as an American standard.

  12. 12 E. Agro
    January 27, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Maybe the High Court majority wants to make it even more clear than it already is that democracy belongs to those who can afford to pay for it in cash, leaving the rest of us aside? It was heartening to see the many petitions & declarations that immediately arose in response. I lost count of the number, but one seemed to garner something like 90,000 signatures within a day or two. Maybe that will help.

  13. 13 sikivu
    February 2, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    One right wing corporate legal scholar has already framed the ruling as liberating corporations from “second class citizenship;” hijacking civil rights language once again

  14. 14 Chris McCown
    February 12, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    I actually don’t have a problem with the court’s ruling and in many ways it makes sense. I do however think that we need a new solution to limit the influence of money which often undermines our democracy. Consider this possibility: The federal government could progressively tax politically oriented contributions and use the funds to publicly finance elections. In my mind, this would be far more effective than capping campaign contributions and it would help ensure a multisided debate. The more money someone contributes to an ideology, the more money they would also contribute to fairly debate and vet that ideology. It’s a win, win solution.

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