Newly sworn-in Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her colleagues on the Supreme Court will cut short their summer vacation next month to hear arguments in a case that could do away with century-old regulations limiting the influence of corporate money in elections.
In March, the high court heard arguments in the case of "Hillary: the Movie," an anti-Hillary Clinton video banned by the Federal Election Commission from being aired based on the "electioneering communications" provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. In June, the court told lawyers to return Sept. 9 to argue on the broader issue of limitations on corporate election spending.
This sets up the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of undoing in a single stroke 100 years of progress limiting the influence of corporations over government officials.
At issue is whether corporations, as legal "people," have the same First Amendment free speech rights as flesh-and-blood people. If they do, then they have the same rights as individuals to spend whatever they choose for or against issues and candidates.
Two justices appear to be key. During his nomination hearings, then-Judge John Roberts talked about the importance of legal precedent. Ample precedent exists for now-Chief Justice Roberts to leave campaign-finance restrictions intact.
The other may be Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in June wrote a majority opinion on a West Virginia case involving huge amounts of money spent by a mining company owner to elect a judge to the state's high court. In it, Justice Kennedy stated, in part, that when such sums are spent helping someone gain public office, "the probability of actual bias rises to an unconstitutional level." In other words, it is possible to buy elected officials.
One has only to look at the lobbying effort by the health-insurance industry to scuttle meaningful health-care reform to see the way corporations already use their deep pockets to gain access to lawmakers and influence policies in ways that average citizens can't. If reasonable restraints on election spending are removed, Capitol Hill may soon be populated by the best lawmakers businesses can buy.
This need not happen. Corporations aren't people; they are the creation of government. As such, they have only the rights granted to them by government, rights that need not include guarantees of free speech equal to those of living, breathing humans.
Ruling otherwise will only weaken the already faint voices of average Americans in the halls of Congress.