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Erica Payne Headshot

The Corporation in Chief

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A year ago last week the Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent and granted corporations the same right to free speech previously enjoyed by individuals. The Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates to a torrent of corporate influence on our democracy. Many Americans were surprised by the decision, a few recognized it for what it was -- the inevitable conclusion of a four-decade-long strategy designed by a Democrat and executed by the Chamber of Commerce and its corporate backers.

In 1971 prior to his nomination to the US Supreme Court, Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the Director of the US Chamber of Commerce detailing a multifaceted plan to dramatically increase the influence of corporations on our democracy. In that memo, Powell called the courts "the most important instrument for social, economic and political change" and stated that "this is a vast area of opportunity for the Chamber, if it is willing to undertake the role of spokesman for American business and if, in turn, business is willing to provide the funds."

Needless to say, they were willing to provide the funds.

Today the Chamber of Commerce describes itself as a "lobbying and political powerhouse." The National Chamber Litigation Center (NCLC) serves as an in-house law firm and boasts of entering in 2009 alone "134 new cases of significance to the business community." The Chamber of Commerce is also a front for corporate money in campaigns. During the health care debate, the insurance lobby secretly gave the Chamber $86.2 million to support the campaign against reform.

Corporations have cultivated a revolving door policy with the Judicial Department. Every solicitor general from the past 15 years, other than Justice Elena Kagan, left their post of public service to work at firms representing corporate interests.

As Powell thought they might, the Chamber has obviously found that "the opportunity merits the necessary effort." The Roberts Court not only takes on more economically oriented cases than its predecessor, it is also more likely to reach a pro-corporate verdict.

The Powell Memo was so vast in scope and scale that had the genesis of the plan been a foreign nation, the U.S. would have declared war against the country seeking to infiltrate our government. But because the enemy of American democracy lay inside our borders rather than out, no war was waged and the enemy won.

Last week, Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group, filed a petition requesting the Justice Department investigate whether Justices Scalia and Thomas should have recused themselves from the Citizens United case due to personal relationships with the Koch brothers (Koch Industries). For decades, the Koch family has been one of the anchor funders of conservative organizations. That leadership continues today. The benefit they received from the Citizens United verdict speaks for itself.

Both justices will be attending the Koch brother's political retreat in Palm Springs later this month. Accusations of impropriety aside, it seems a fitting celebration for the one-year anniversary of big business's crown jewel in the courts.

Throughout history, our leaders have warned of threats to our democracy. Washington warned of sacrificing our sovereignty through entanglements abroad, Theodore Roosevelt set out to bust the corporate trusts that threatened to swallow up our democracy, and Eisenhower famously cautioned that only an "aware and informed citizenry" could protect the country from the growing influence of the military-industrial complex (interestingly an early version of that speech warned of the military-industrial-congressional complex').

By the looks of this year's Supreme Court docket, the corporate coup will continue unabated. The Chamber of Commerce has filed amicus briefs in more than half of the cases slated for oral arguments this month alone. Among other things, this year the court is considering denying women the right to join together as a 'class' to pursue a sex-discrimination suit against Walmart. Most recently the court is considering offering corporations personal privacy rights in FCC vs. AT&T.

The right to free speech. The right to privacy. The right to bear arms? What's next? The right to vote? Maybe the right to run for office.

President Halliburton anyone?

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