The whole idea of “corporate rights” has been a contentious issue in American politics since at least the Jacksonian Era. But rarely has it been so vivid a controversy as now, after a Supreme Court ruling in which one of the most human of activities (as Nietzsche would have said: Human, All Too Human), religious expression, was attributed to corporations in order to protect their masters. For once, Dana Milbank’s impressionistic approach to reporting major news was entirely appropriate:

There was a certain risk in having Alito deliver the 5-to-4 opinion defending corporate personhood, because his mannerisms are strikingly robotic for a human. Assigned both of Monday’s opinions, Alito delivered a 33-minute monologue — his only departure from the text before him was to raise his head mechanically at intervals and glance at a table to his right — that seemed to have a soporific effect on his colleagues. Clarence Thomas rubbed his head, Anthony Kennedy rested his head in his right palm, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who was to read her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case) drank a large quantity from her coffee mug, and the others stared ahead with unfocused gazes.

Alito, seated between Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan, and his colleagues in the majority also may not have considered how flesh-and-blood humans might perceive the ruling — the five men of the conservative bloc allowing restrictions on birth control over the objections of the three women on the court.

Any time the rights of an abstraction–or more technically, a legal fiction–are balanced against those of human beings and held to be more compelling, the optics are important. That’s particularly true when the underlying issue is the need to protect a handful of cells constituting a zygote from grown-up women.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.