When I was in school, I learned about the three branches of government: the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch. Back when I was a kid (and that was a long time ago), I believed that those in public service were ethically beyond reproach. I was a political junkie from the time I was in my late teens so, believe me, it didn’t take long for me to wake up and realize that was the furthest thing from the truth. At this point in our country’s history, you’d have to be downright stupid to believe that both the executive and legislative branches are ethically beyond reproach. (I don’t know anyone who believes that.) All you need to do is keep an eye on the nonsense going on in Washington every single day. Even the process of getting there is corrupt beyond repair. Yet there are still people who believe that the judicial branch is ethically beyond reproach, and I’m speaking specifically about the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS).
The Citizens United decision should have been a giant wake-up call for the people of the United States, yet the Supreme Court enjoys a 46% approval rating in spite of it. President Obama has fluctuated somewhere between 38-43% over the past two months. And Congress? As of this writing, it’s hovering around 9%. For those who have forgotten the basic gist of this decision, the SCOTUS ruled that the First Amendment prevents the government (read: the Federal Election Commission) from censoring political messages in the election process when those messages are funded by corporations or unions. This is, of course, in direct violation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also know as the McCain-Feingold Act). But, shit, that doesn’t matter. It’s the Supreme Judicial Court of the United States. Ethics be damned.
What most people do not realize is that this decision tears down the last bastion of protection that the American public has from corporate influence. Corporations already permeate the legislative process. They are involved in rewriting bills that affect worker and consumer rights; privatizing schools and higher education; health, big pharma, and social welfare; and the environment, energy and agriculture. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Ensuring their involvement in the election process will only strengthen their hold on our everyday lives.
• Tom Udall, New Mexico
• Michael Bennett, Colorado
• Tom Harkin, Iowa
• Dick Durbin, Illinois
• Chuck Schumer, New York
• Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island
• Jeff Merkeley, Oregon
However, as proposed, this amendment does not eliminate “corporate person hood.” It does not go far enough. With Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals. However, corporations do not vote. Therefore, they should not be allowed to donate to any political campaign. They are not human beings. This particular amendment leaves the inmates in charge of the asylum, and it does nothing to get the money out of the political process. Then again, it doesn’t much matter since there’s not a chance in hell it’s going anywhere.
To say that Constitutional amendments are a long shot is an understatement, particularly in a case like this. In order to propose one, either two-thirds of Congress can agree to an amendment or it can be called by two-thirds of state legislatures. The latter has never happened, by the way. To ratify a Constitutional amendment, three-quarters of state legislatures must agree to the amendment, or three-quarters of the states must have constitutional conventions that agree on the measure. It is difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution, and that’s the way it should be. However, an ill-advised SCOTUS decision such as the Citizens United ruling has truly compromised this democracy.
Our ethically-challenged members of the Supreme Judicial Court
One look at the ethically challenged members of the conservative SCOTUS, should dispel any surprise one might have over the Citizens United ruling. It is clearly time to put an end to the Supreme Court’s ethics immunity and force its members to abide by the same Judicial Conference Code of Conduct that other federal judges must adhere to. On March 1, Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-CT) filed H.R. 862, the Supreme Court Transparency and Disclosure Act of 2011, in which he cited numerous conflicts of interest involving Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. After six months of languishing in Congress, Murphy sent a letter to Lamar Smith (chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) in September requesting hearings on H.R. 862.
In 2007 and 2008, both Scalia and Thomas attended a political strategy seminar (the 2011 version is called: Understanding and Addressing Threats to American Free Enterprise and Prosperity) sponsored by none other than Tea Party darlings Charles and David Koch. At the time of the “seminar,” Citizens United was making its way to the Supreme Court. In 2010, when the decision was handed down, Scalia and Thomas sided with the majority, a decision which benefited Koch Industries. However, Koch was not the only beneficiary. The ruling also benefited Liberty Central, a Tea Party political education and action group (which receives anonymous corporate donations) founded by Virginia Thomas, Clarence Thomas’ wife.
For years Thomas has repeatedly failed to disclose his wife’s income even though such disclosure is required under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. IRS filings confirm that Virginia Thomas was paid $686,579 for her contributions at the Heritage Foundation between 2003 and 2007. She also drew a salary from Liberty Central. According to the New York Times, there is also evidence that Thomas failed to report travel paid for by one Harlan Crowe, a real estate developer and a major contributor to conservative causes. Even though the Justice Alliance and Common Cause have banded together to request that the Judicial Conference of the United States investigate to determine whether these violations merit referral to the Justice Department, there’s little chance of that happening. While the SCOTUS should not be above the law it so adamantly professes to respect, it freely operates outside of that law with impunity and without consequences.
Then there’s Samuel Alito, a major player in conservative fundraising causes, most notably for the American Spectator, a right-wing rag whose publisher leads a secretive conservative group called the Conservative Action Project. Its reason for being is to push conservative legislation, elect Republicans and block President Obama’s judicial appointments. Alito has attended American Spectator’s fundraising dinner in 2008 and 2010. Alito dismisses his attendance as “not important,” even though he rubs shoulders with such conservative luminaries (if that’s what you want to call them) as Michael Steele and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer (a major donor to attack ad groups). In 2009, Alito headlined the fundraising dinner for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a funding source for discredited conservative “journalist” (snicker) James O’Keefe and wacky Tea Party senator Christine O’Donnell (R-Delaware).
Taking up Obamacare and compromising the outcome
The latest issue on the SJC docket is the nation’s health care reform law. The day the justices decided whether or not to hear the case, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were the featured guests at a Federalist Society dinner sponsored by the very law firm (Bancroft PLLC) that will argue against the health care overhaul in front of the high court in March of 2012. Bancroft was not the only sponsor. Jones Day, another sponsor, represents the National Federation of Independent Business, which challenged the law. Big pharma giant Pfizer, Inc., which stands to gain if the law is struck down, was also a sponsor. Can you say “conflict of interest” loud enough?
Canon 4C of the Code of Conduct that lower federal judges must abide by states, “A judge may attend fund-raising events of law-related and other organizations although the judge may not be a speaker, a guest of honor, or featured on the program of such an event.” However, because the SJC is allowed to operate outside of these codes of conduct, there is nothing legally preventing them from participating in such events.
Although there is nothing “legally wrong” with any of this, there is something “morally wrong” with this picture. It is clear that the more conservative members of the high court find it impossible to police themselves. It’s time for SJC to fall under the same umbrella of rules that govern the justices of the lower federal courts no matter how long it takes to get there.