Stevens Accuses Supreme Court Conservatives of Judicial Activism

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 11:30 AM EST

So where are all the cries of judicial activism from the right?

By ruling today that corporations and unions can independently spend as much money as they want to back or trash congressional and presidential candidates, the conservative Supreme Court justices are throwing out over a century of jurisprudence that backed the regulation of corporate involvement in elections. Yet will the right denounce the five-to-four decision as an act of judicial overreach? That's not likely. But Justice John Paul Stevens, in a stinging dissent written for the minority, argues that the right wing of the court has engaged in a brazen act of activism--and has done so to award corporations more legal rights than they have previously been afforded.

A few excerpts:

* Even more misguided is the notion that the Court must rewrite the law relating to campaign expenditures by for-profit corporations and unions to decide this case. 

* The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.

* Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters.

* The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

* The majority’s approach to corporate electioneering marks a dramatic break from our past. Congress hasplaced special limitations on campaign spending by corporations ever since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907....We have unanimously concluded [in 1982] that this “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...The Court today rejects a century of history when it treats the distinction between corporate and individual campaignspending as an invidious novelty born [in a 1990 opinion].

* The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution. 

With this dissent, Stevens is scoffing at Chief Justice John Roberts' self-proclaimed fancy for "judicial modesty" and waging battle on one of the major fronts in the court's history: how far should the justices go in equating corporations with citizens. You can read the decision here.

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