Four years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, most Americans are revolted at the scale of campaign spending ushered in by the decision and dismayed by a political system they view as favoring the wealthy. They remain suspicious that somehow these flaws in our democracy have made solutions to the problems of unemployment, income inequality, global warming and a host of others elusive, and perhaps impossible, for our leaders to find.
Most Americans, however, have yet to realize just how destructive the ideas driving Citizens United really are — and how several cases the Supreme Court is set to decide this year could have the power to exacerbate the problems we face and create dangerous precedents that will harm our democracy and our society for years to come.
Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius is one of those cases. Arising from a challenge to the Affordable Care Act by the kitchen cabinet manufacturer, it asks whether a corporation can be compelled to provide its employees with health care that includes coverage for contraception if the corporate shareholders have a religious objection. On March 25, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in this case, along with a similar case, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby.
But these cases are about more than Obamacare, just as Citizens United is about more than money in politics. The same extraordinary claim made in Citizens United — that corporations are entitled to the same constitutional rights as people — is at the heart of Conestoga. Four years ago, corporations cemented a claim to the right of free speech under the First Amendment, and now corporations are hoping to capture religious freedom as well.
The very fact that a cabinet door manufacturer has made it to the Supreme Court by claiming religious freedom shows how far the flawed doctrine of “corporate rights” has come. Yet the doctrine is hardly new. Increasingly, corporations have claimed First Amendment rights as a means to strike down laws that their managers view as unfavorable to the bottom line. Over time, they have racked up a dangerous record of success, using the courts to invalidate laws enacted by our democratically elected representatives to protect the public interest.
The corporate rights doctrine is based on a truly radical idea of what corporations actually are. Corporations are economic entities, chartered by the state for the purpose of making money. They serve a necessary and useful role in our society, a role we facilitate by granting them many privileges, such as perpetual life, limited liability, and often, special tax advantages. Corporations have always had legal rights, and they exercise those rights all the time to operate effectively in the economy.
The troubling new trend that most Americans have yet to recognize is the extension of constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech or religion, to corporations. The Bill of Rights is so vital because it protects these freedoms for “We the People.” Transferring those constitutional rights to “We the Corporations” is done at the expense of the people and the public interest.
Millions will be spent in the 2014 election cycle, most likely more than has ever been spent on politics in the history of any country. Much of this is, of course, thanks to Citizens United, which, just four years after it emerged, has flooded our politics with campaign money, undermined our democracy, and made the real problems we face harder to solve.
But the other harsh legacy may be the way Citizens United has set the legal table for future decisions like Conestoga. The Supreme Court must be aware of just how profoundly its coming decisions will shape our country. Granting more and more constitutional rights to the economic actors known as corporations would, in the end, leave us with fewer for ourselves.
Ron Fein is the legal director for Free Speech for People, a national non-partisan organization dedicated to challenging the misuse of corporate power and restoring democracy to the people. This essay was distributed by MCT Information Services.