Chief Justice John Roberts is a sanctimonious jackalope. Oh, I'm sorry. Am I in contempt of court? The Supreme Court is deserving of the most supreme contempt for their recent ruling opening the floodgates of unlimited corporate cash into the political system. As if it weren't bad enough already, with a dozen lobbyists for every legislator in Congress, now the richest corporations can simply buy congressional seats and slip their personal lackeys directly into the office. This bypasses all that pesky business about representative democracy and allows the financial markets to speak. Welcome to the United Corporate States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Peoples' Republic of China.
The court's decision, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, passed on a 5-4 vote along strictly partisan lines, showing what 20 years worth of Reagan-Bush appointees will get you: judges so "business friendly" they are willing to protect corporate expenditures against the peoples' right to hold free and fair elections.
The First Amendment has long protected the corporation as an "individual" with all the same rights of free speech as a real human, hence that quaint colloquialism "corporate citizen." But this is the first time the court has interpreted "speech" to mean "money." The verdict overrules two precedents restricting campaign spending by corporations and unions, including the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act, and states that limiting corporate spending in advocating for a candidate is "governmental regulation of political speech." The explosion that followed the decision was the sound of champagne corks popping all over K Street in Washington and Madison Avenue in New York.
Among the many legitimate philosophical differences between conservatives and liberals, there is one issue that we can all agree on: The most corrosive and dangerous element in our presently polarized politics is not the filibuster or attack ads or even partisanship. It's money. Cash corrupts the process more than any malfunctioning voting machine, and it creates false perceptions among voters about their candidates. I'll own up to being as gullible as the next guy after being totally fooled by the John Edwards presidential campaign. It's easy for an advertiser to portray a scoundrel as a loving family man if the participants are in on the scam. What's to prevent the NRA, or the health insurance lobby, or Wall Street banks and brokerage firms from hiring Oliver Stone to produce campaign commercials that make Super Bowl ads look like QVC? We'll find out soon enough, in 2012, when we begin electing our public officials, from court clerk to president, like we're voting for the Video Music Awards.
Even after this onerous decision, the "Father Knows Best" automaton known as John Roberts had the temerity to bristle at the criticism that followed, especially from the president during his State of the Union address. Roberts told University of Alabama law students that the president's speech had turned into a "political pep rally," as if that's not what the State of the Union address already is, and wondered if it was appropriate for the justices to even be there. This pomposity comes from a man who might not even be on the court if George W. Bush had succeeded in getting his gushing groupie, Harriet Miers, confirmed. Roberts was up for the seat of Sandra Day O'Connor when William Rhenquist, for whom Roberts served as law clerk, up and croaked, making the new justice not merely another conservative appointee but the leader of the "Roberts Five": Johnny, Sam, Tony, Anton, and Clarence. The conservatives always rail against "activist judges" who "legislate from the bench," until they become the majority and then that's exactly what they do. Campaign contributions are not the same thing as corporate funding. One is free speech; the other is free speech through an expensive megaphone.
Years ago, people of a certain age will remember that leaving Memphis heading north, it was necessary to cross over the Wolf River. The waterway was then the repository for the city's raw sewage, and the odor was so god-awful, it was like a barroom bathroom after a rough weekend. Thanks to advanced filtration technologies and citizen groups like the Wolf River Conservancy, the river today, if not pristine, is a far cleaner place. Such is the current state of our public election system — somewhat polluted but generally passable and reasonably dependable. However, what the Roberts court has done is to remove all the necessary filtering devices and allow the sewage to flow unchecked back into the mainstream of the body politic, and it will take years to reverse the course of the sludge that's rolling in like a special-interest tsunami.
A famous jurist once said in regard to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated the public schools: "The court in that case, of course, overruled a prior decision. I don't think that constitutes judicial activism because, obviously, if the decision is wrong, it should be overruled. That's not activism. That's applying the law correctly." That judge's name was John Roberts, who turned out to be just another self-important, middle-aged white dude in a black robe.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.