To start out on a somewhat solemn note, this past Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s peculiar decision in the Citizen’s United v Federal Election Commission case. Apparently, corporations are people, and are, therefore, protected from things that might infringe on their free speech. You might already have figured out that this is something I feel very strongly about. Oddly, it is possibly the only thing that the American Civil Liberties Union and I disagree on (although I do understand and appreciate their view).
For those of you outside of the US, and those within that don’t already know this, in the Citizens United v FEC case, the Supreme Court ruled that the political expenditures by corporations and unions are protected as free speech under the First Amendment. The problem I have with the decision is that I do not believe corporations, or unions, are entitled to free speech protections because I see them as artificial constructs that are not entitled to the protection of First Amendment (or any other Amendment). John Paul Steven’s dissent, states this much better than I ever could, so I’ve included this excerpt from the beginning of the dissenting opinion (full text at this link):
“The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.
In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”
What I would really like to see in a new constitutional amendment is not one that would specifically limit the First Amendment to block corporations – I would much rather see an amendment that clarifies the definition of a person to exclude corporations, unions, and other special interests groups – so that a person is a clearly defined naturally born individual (sorry my non-pro-choice friends, yes, birth should be specified – or should pregnant women have extra votes, too?). Legal entities should be clearly defined as not persons. That would also help some of the gibberish in many of our more modern laws that seem to find it necessary to specify natural and non-natural persons. Um, if you are a non-natural person, you aren’t a person. It really should be that simple. This would also help to limit PACs, which thrive on individual, rather than corporate, donations, and which have weak disclosure requirements. Along with this, Congress needs enact legislation that changes the entire political spending landscape, so that elections are funded from a common election funding pool – and spending parity needs to be ensured, and limited in amount. This is also largely the view of the ACLU. So then – better public financing of elections, and better disclosure of campaign contributors. Should be simple and logical, right?
The problem is that electioneering in the United States has becomes so outrageously expensive, that no one can get elected if they a) don’t have money and connections at the start, and b) don’t have donation sources for campaign spending. It’s especially nice when those ads get paid for by various PACs, and other legal entities separate from your own campaign, so that you are not personally accountable for the spending, or for the donations used to cover the costs. The system we have now is already badly broken. Congress may eventually choose to pursue a path toward some constitutional amendment regarding the Citizen’s United decision, but they are unlikely to ever close the door on their own campaign contributions. And any move made to restrict just the First Amendment, instead of addressing the larger question of personhood, and without addressing full-blown campaign finance reform is possibly more dangerous than maintaining the status quo.
For a fairly easy to read summary of how the decision has impacted politics in the US, this Washington Post blog post by Chris Cilliza is a good start.
To continue with legal oddities, on January 15, a federal jury awarded a retired miner $150,000 for religious discrimination by his previous employer. The suit was brought by the US Equal Opportunities Employment Commission on behalf of the plaintiff, who was forced to retire earlier than planned because he refused to use the biometric hand scanner that his employer introduced to track employee attendance, and they did not provide an alternative. The plaintiff is an Evangelical Christian, who believe that the scanners will imprint him with the “Mark of the Beast”. The EEOC’s contention was that the plaintiff’s refusal was rooted in sincerely held religious beliefs, and that there were easy to implement reasonable accommodations that the employer could have made.
Ok, I’m not a fan of biometric attendance tracking – way too big brother-like for me. And I do support the notion of reasonable accommodation for all protected employment classes, including religion. The problem I am having in digesting this is that I find it disturbing when ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ trump scientific fact in court. Even my very religious friends are stumped by this one, mostly since hand scanners don’t appear to be widely viewed as instruments of Satan. So where does the line get drawn under the EEO Act? Is it because the scanners were not integral to his ability to perform his job, but merely a means to monitor employees? In which case, they would have little excuse not to accommodate his request as long as he was able to perform his duties? Would the line have been drawn elsewhere if the scanners were instead some sort of new tool that were necessary to perform his job? I don’t know for sure, but I assume that’s the case.
It does disturb me, in the same way that the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision concerned me, because it seems that we are taking a step backwards if religious beliefs (which can apparently be held by corporations) which run counter to scientific or medical fact, are deemed to be LEGALLY sacrosanct. We are in an age of Willful Ignorance. If I believe it, it must be true, and the courts will have to agree with me. Even if I’m a corporation.