03/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bank of America or America of the Banks?

Today, with its decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court rejected decades of precedent in declaring that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights as live citizens.

Thanks to the Roberts Court, mega-banks that are using billions of our bailout dollars for obscene bonuses can now use our money to help place their hand-picked candidates into the halls of power.

We've seen what happens when Wall Street is accountable to no one. Now we'll see what happens when our elected representatives are directly accountable to Wall Street.

Bank of America should serve its customers and stay out of politics. But, today's decision could turn us into an America of the Banks, where our elected officials serve huge corporations instead of ordinary citizens.

The corporation that sells the most widgets shouldn't get to pick the next president. But today the Roberts Court paved the way for huge conglomerates to use their vast wealth to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.

Through lobbying, corporate PACs, and massive advertising budgets, corporations already exert too much influence on American politics. Today's ruling guts one of the last remaining bulwarks of citizen power.

Can Goldman Sachs walk into a polling place and vote for a U.S. senator? Of course not, so why should we let big banks, or other corporations, have even more influence over who represents us, by spending unlimited money to put company-owned candidates into elected office?

Health insurance companies spent $641,000 every day lobbying against reform in Congress. Now, for a few days' expense, they can fund high-dollar campaigns to put their executives and advocates directly into Congress. Who needs lobbying when your cronies control the levers of power?

This decision is a slap in the face to ordinary citizens, and a victory for the Chamber of Commerce and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who filed briefs calling for today's result.

WellPoint Insurance and other corporations don't have the same rights as citizens. The vast majority of Americans agree. Unfortunately five members of the Supreme Court take another view.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, rejects the contention that Congress may treat corporations differently than citizens with respect to free speech rights. This not only overrules both McConnell v. FEC (2003) and Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), it contravenes the logic of the UNANIMOUS decision in 1982's FEC v. National Right to Work Committee.

That decision upheld the constitutional requirement that corporations establish "separate segregated funds" (i.e. PACs) in order to engage in political speech. Although Justice Kennedy distinguishes the case because it applied to a corporation with a PAC that made direct contributions to candidates, the logic applies equally to independent expenditures. In National Right to Work Committee (NRWC), the Court said:

In order to prevent both actual and apparent corruption, Congress aimed a part of its regulatory scheme at corporations. The statute reflects a legislative judgment that the special characteristics of the corporate structure require particularly careful regulation. While 441b restricts the solicitation of corporations and labor unions without great financial resources, as well as those more fortunately situated, we accept Congress' judgment that it is the potential for such influence that demands regulation. Nor will we second-guess a legislative determination as to the need for prophylactic measures where corruption is the evil feared. As we said in California Medical Assn. v. FEC, the 'differing structures and purposes' of different entities 'may require different forms of regulation in order to protect the integrity of the electoral process...

... The governmental interest in preventing both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption of elected officials has long been recognized... and there's no reason why it may not in this case be accomplished by treating unions, corporations, and similar organizations differently from individuals.

As Justice Stevens noted in his dissent, referring to the NRWC case, "We have unanimously concluded that [Congress placing special limitations on campaign spending by corporations] 'reflects a permissible assessment of the dangers posed by those entities to the electoral process...and have accepted the legislative judgment that the special characteristics of the corporate structure require particularly careful regulation..."

This is a huge blow to the integrity and fairness of our democracy. Citizens should not take it lying down. We must make clear to our leaders that we'll tolerate no more Supreme Court justices who believe corporations have the same free speech rights as citizens.

Take action to push back on this affront to citizen-powered democracy here.

And, view Progressive Future's press release here.