Bucking the Trends

They never apologized, did they? My goodness, even retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had the decency to express regret for her heinous actions in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case. However, the folks who stole our democracy forty years ago this month never expressed any contrition.

On January 30, 1976, the Supreme Court issued its demented decision in Buckley v. Valeo–a decision that established the repugnant legal principle that cash is a form of free speech. That ruling–and a subsequent ruling that established the legal principle that corporations are people–gave bribery a full legal sanction in the United States.

The Buckley decision was unquestionably one of the most vile rulings in Supreme Court history, right down there with Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson and Lochner v. New York. As Stephen Justino noted in 2014, the decision was intellectually inspired by the dark vision of Justice Lewis Powell:

The pro-corporatist activism on today’s Supreme Court has its roots in a 1971 memorandum written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by a tobacco industry lobbyist named Lewis Powell. The memo, which was entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” called on the Chamber to engage in a sustained and concerted campaign to use an “activist-minded Supreme Court” to shape big-business-friendly social, economic and political change. This document is often referred to as “The Powell Memo.”

That same year, Richard Nixon nominated Powell to the U.S. Supreme Court. [Five years later, Powell] joined the Court’s per curiam decision in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), in which the Court created the spurious legal doctrine of “Money equals speech,” and then used that legal doctrine to strike down the federal government’s first ever attempt at regulating political fund-raising and political spending through the use of comprehensive campaign finance reform.

Two years later, Justice Powell took his plan one step further, in the decision he wrote in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978). In that case, the Court struck down a Massachusetts law that prohibited corporate donations in ballot initiatives unless the corporation’s interests were directly at stake in the election. The Court’s rationale for the decision was based on the Court’s findings that corporations have an inalienable right, under the First Amendment, to make contributions to ballot initiative campaigns.

Is it any surprise that the Republican Party’s full-on shift to the radical right–and the US political system’s overall shift away from progressive values–began in the years immediately following the Buckley decision? Legalized bribery is all one needs to frustrate action on climate change, post-Obamacare health care reform, gun control and tax fairness, among other issues.

Forty years after the Supreme Court’s shameful conclusion, it’s clear that the only way to fix our broken democracy is to render the Buckley, Bellotti and Citizens United decisions null and void via a constitutional amendment that will declare once and for all that money is not a form of free speech and that corporations are not human beings. The idea of adding a 28th amendment to the Constitution might seem far-fetched…but there was a time when such ideas as ending slavery, granting women the right to vote, putting a man on the moon, tearing down the Berlin Wall and securing marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples seemed far-fetched, too.

UPDATE: More from Cenk Uygur and Thom Hartmann.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.