Supreme Court Case Could Damage Our Democracy

Sept. 8, 2009

Supreme Court Case Could Damage Our Democracy

Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen

Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in one of the most critical and far-reaching cases that has come down the pike in many years. Depending on how the justices rule, our democracy could suffer damage that will take years of struggle to repair.

The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, started out as a narrow issue about whether an anti-Hillary Clinton movie made in the heat of the last presidential election is covered by restrictions in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. In a highly unusual move, the justices have used the case to reconsider two other pivotal decisions that limited the role of corporate money in politics. They are even starting work a few weeks early to do it. By all appearances, it seems as though at least some of the justices are eager to upend well-established case law and permit a tsunami of corporate money to overwhelm a political system already wallowing in Big Business dollars.

Overturning the court’s precedents on corporate election expenditures would be a disaster. Corporations already dominate our political process – through political action committees, fundraisers, high-paid lobbyists and personal contributions by corporate insiders, often bundled together to increase their impact, and more. On the dominant issues of the day – climate change, health care and financial regulation — corporate interests are leveraging their political investments to sidetrack vital measures to protect the planet, expand health care coverage while controlling costs and prevent future financial meltdowns.

The current system demands reform to limit corporate influence. As alternatives to the current pay-to-play system, we support public funding for elections and small donor empowerment.

Yet the Supreme Court may actually roll back the limits on corporate electoral spending now in place. These limits are very inadequate, but they do block unlimited spending from corporate treasuries to influence election outcomes. Rolling back those limits will unleash corporations to ramp up their spending still further, with a potentially decisive chilling effect on candidates critical of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agenda. Can things get still worse in Washington? Yes, they can get much worse – and they will, if the court decides for corporations and against democracy.

Because of the momentous nature of this case, Public Citizen not only has committed legal resources to the court fight but also has launched a campaign designed to draw attention to the possibility of the justices rolling back a century’s worth of legal precedents designed to curb corporate influence over federal elections.

We urge people to go to www.DontGetRolled.org to learn how they can speak out against the potential for corporations to steamroll citizens – and show their commitment to continuing the struggle to tame corporations regardless of the outcome of the case – through video, e-mail, blogging or street protests. Already, people have pledged to protest tomorrow in a variety of ways across the country. Some concerned citizens have pledged to blog, make videos, put signs up in prominent places and host parties to raise awareness. Other activists are hitting the streets across the country, in Austin, Boise, Madison, Durham and elsewhere.

Ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people – not the corporations and their money. Corporations don’t vote, and they shouldn’t be permitted to spend limitless amounts of money to influence election outcomes.

Note: Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson is one of the attorneys representing the key congressional sponsors of the McCain-Feingold law and co-authored their amicus brief, available at https://www.citizen.org/hot_issues/issue.cfm?ID=2333