The Fascinating History of How Corporations Became "People" -- Thanks to Corrupt Courts Working for the 1%
Perhaps there were truly free markets before the industrial revolution, where townspeople and farmers gathered in a square to exchange livestock, produce and handmade tools. In our modern world, such a market does not exist. Governments set up the rules of the game, and those rules have an enormous impact on our economic outcomes.
In 2007, the year of the crash, the top 1 percent of American households took in almost two-and-a-half times the share of our nation's pre-tax income that they had grabbed in the 40 years folliwing World War Two. This was no accident – the rules of the market underwent profound changes that led to the upward redistribution of trillions in income over the past 30 years. The rules are set by Congress – under a mountain of lobbying dollars – but they are adjudicated by the courts.
The Supreme Court, with a right-wing majority under Chief Justice John Roberts, has become a body that leans too far toward the “1 percent” to be considered a neutral arbiter. So whether they know all the ins and outs of the court's profound rightward shift or not, those protesting across the country as part of the Occupy movement are motivated by its corruption as well.
While conservatives constantly rail against judges "legislating from the bench," it is far more common for right-leaning jurists to engage in “judicial activism” than those of a liberal bent. That's what a 2005 study by Yale University legal scholar Paul Gewirtz and Chad Golder found. According to the scholars, those justices most frequently labeled "conservative" were among the most likely to strike down statutes passed by Congress, while those most frequently labeled "liberal" were the least likely to do so.
A 2007 study by University of Chicago law professor Thomas J. Miles and Cass R. Sunstein looked at the tendency of judges to strike down decisions by federal regulatory agencies, and found a similar trend. The Supreme Court's "conservative" justices were again the most likely to engage in this form of "activism," while the "liberal" justices were most likely to exercise judicial restraint.
The most notorious case of activism by the Roberts court was its ruling in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which overturned key provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, rules that kept corporations -- and their lobbyists and front groups (as well as labor unions) --- from spending unlimited amounts of cash on campaign advertising within 60 days of a general election for federal office (or 30 days before a primary).
At a 2010 conference, former Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, put the potential impact of Citizens United in stark terms. “We’re now in a situation,” he told the crowd, “where a lobbyist can walk into my office…and say, ‘I’ve got five million dollars to spend, and I can spend it for you or against you. Which do you prefer?’”
To arrive at their ruling, the court’s conservative majority stretched the Orwellian legal concept known as “corporate personhood” to the limit, and gave faceless multinationals expansive rights to influence our elections under the auspices of the First Amendment.
“They wanted to hear the possibility that that’s the way the constitution would read to them,” said Grayson. “So they picked an issue out of the air that nobody had conceived of [as a First Amendment case] because 100 years of settled law meant that corporations cannot buy elections in America, and they not only allowed corporations to buy those elections, but they made it a constitutional right.”
Early on, the plaintiffs themselves had decided not to base their case on the First Amendment. It was the conservative justices themselves who ordered the case re-argued fully a month after a ruling had been expected, asking the lawyers to present the free speech argument they’d earlier abandoned.