From an early age we are all taught the pledge of allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all”. It’s unfortunate that at that early age we are also not taught that some in our society can afford to have more justice than the rest of us. In fact, I guess some could truly buy a Justice.
In the 2010 decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court took the position that campaign contributions are “free speech” and the legal entities known as corporations have rights guaranteed to them under the First Amendment.
In writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy declared, “If the First Amendment has any force it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Note that twice in that sentence Justice Kennedy used the word citizen. Merriam-Webster defines citizen as: “an inhabitant of a city or town; especially : one entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman.” So we could conclude that Justice Kennedy was referring to an association of inhabitants in the phrase “associations of citizens”, not the legal entity know as corporations.
I’ve always been taught that for privileges there must be responsibilities. Some of the responsibilities of being a citizen are: obeying the laws, paying taxes, serving jury duty, serve as a witness, register for the draft and to vote. One could argue that voting is both a responsibility and a privilege, and I think most people the world over would think it’s a privilege. In a representative democracy, voting is how we elect the leaders who will watch out for the people’s interests and put the citizens’ interests above all other considerations.
When comparing how a corporation measures up to being a citizen using the responsibilities outlined above, what comparisons can be made?
1. Obeying the laws: While corporations are not setup to specifically break laws, they are setup to take advantage of a different set of laws, and in all cases these laws provide limited liability to the formers of the corporation.
2. Paying taxes: Avoiding taxes is a primary motivator for forming a corporation.
3. Serving jury duty: Have you ever seen a corporation or its representative in a jury pool?
4. Serve as a witness: see number 3.
5. Register for the draft: While multi-national corporations have required that our children go to war to “protect our vital interests abroad”, you’ll never see a corporation or CEO in basic training.
6. To vote: If you count pouring tons of money into campaigns of favorable politicians as voting, then yes. But then you would have the corporation exercising the highest privilege without any of the responsibilities.
Separating money from the election process is probably the most democratic action we could take as a nation. What if the elections were public funded? What if each candidate had a set budget that couldn’t be exceeded? What if each candidate had to gain an increase to their base the old fashion way, by knocking on doors? What if members of Congress didn’t spend 50 percent of their time raising money and instead did the people’s business? What if the election season began September 1 of the election year and ended October 31st? I know I for one would be happier seeing less ads.
This election cycle is supposed to have generated 14 billion dollars in campaign spending. What if public financing reduced that to 1 billion, divided equally to the parties based off of registration? The party with the most registered voters gets the most money. Want more money? Go convince voters that your message is better. Very simple.
I remember a time when rich kids bought their way out of service with a doctor’s note. Now the Supreme Court has given monied interests the ability to avoid all of the responsibilities of citizenship while using their influence to determine the outcome of elections. We as citizens know that the “founders” did not intend this perversion of the Declaration of Independence.
There’s an old saying, “if you lie down with dogs, you’re going to get up with fleas”. Maybe term limits for Justices of the Supreme Court is the answer. It would certainly lessen their exposure to the dogs. More importantly, it will make them more acutely aware that soon they’ll be walking again among the people who expect justice for all.