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The Business of the Roberts Court

Supreme Court, Inc.

by HILARY MATFESS

The media spectacle surrounding the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act eclipsed another important judgment the Court made that week. In American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, the Court voted 5-4 to reaffirm its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the controversial campaign finance case in 2010. In Citizens United, the court’s majority argued that political spending is a form of speech and that restrictions upon that speech would violate corporations’ first amendment rights. The Bullock ruling overturned a Montana Supreme Court decision that affirmed a century-old voter-approved ban on corporate spending in the state’s elections. This reinforcement of the Citizens United decision has grave implications for the legitimacy of our democracy and our constitutional rights. It should serve as a rallying point for grassroots movements.

The Citizens United decision and the Bullock affirmation are both ushering in a stampede of corporate contributions to candidates and parties. The dismantling of regulations on corporate expenditure on elections has no clear stopping point, particularly when the nation’s highest court seems intent upon granting them legal status as citizens. These precedents make it easier for corporations to exercise the rights of American citizens without corresponding civic responsibilities.

The Roberts Court apparently believes that corporate rights are more important than those of U.S. citizens. It’s also making it harder to prosecute corporations.  The Alliance for Justice, an advocacy group that compiles annual reports detailing the Supreme Court cases concerning corporate rights, has found that “under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court has radically rewritten laws in order to shield big business from liability, insulate corporate interests from environmental and antitrust regulation, make it easier for companies to discriminate against women and the elderly, and enable powerful interests to flood our election process with special interest dollars.”

The Constitutional Accountability Center found that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a prominent business lobby, enjoys a 68 percent success rate when filing briefs with the Roberts Court, a significant improvement over the 43 percent success rate it experienced under Chief Justice Warren Burger and the 56 percent rate under Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The Supreme Court is, ideally, divorced from ideology and committed to the notion of justice when considering the constitutionality of laws and events brought before it. The Roberts Court, however, has an ideologically motivated agenda that influences its decisions. The judicial activism this Court engages in doesn’t benefit the people of the United States. One has to look no further than its Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker ruling, in which the majority ruled that the punitive damages that the oil behemoth owed the victims of the Valdez oil spill be slashed from $2.5 billion to $500 million, to see where the Roberts Court’s sympathies lie.

In light of the elevated legal status the Roberts court has bestowed upon corporations, a grassroots movement towards community-centered businesses and banks is essential. It’s up to us to maintain the integrity of our rights. There are many ways for us to roll back the power the Roberts Court has handed corporations. Simply buying your peaches at a farmers market or moving your money to a community-based credit union are great first steps.

This fight, however, requires more than just an informed citizenry wielding the power of their purse strings. In addition to making community-conscious decisions, combating a Supreme Court at odds with the interests of the American public requires voting for legislators who will pass laws restricting the rights and powers of corporations and a president who will enforce these laws. The 2012 elections offer all Americans an opportunity to demonstrate our opposition to the Roberts Court’s agenda.

Everyday decisions, such as where to buy our coffee, where to invest our money, and whom to elect, empower us to reshape our economy to value people over profits. Every community-conscious choice that we make pushes back against the agenda of the Court; just imagine the power of 300 million Americans mindfully choosing local businesses and progressive politicians over corporations.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.

This column is distributed by Other Words.