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Latinos, Corporate Power and the Supreme Court

National Institute for Latino Policy eNewsletter, Commentary, Angelo Falcn Posted: Jan 22, 2010

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision in the appeal of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission adds to the already corrupting influence of money on American politics, which is bad news for the Latino community.

In a 5-4 split vote, the Court lifted the ban against corporations spending money from their own treasuries for political advertisements aired within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election and lifted restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose candidates. The majority was composed of justices appointed by Republican presidents, while the dissenting minority consisted of three appointed by Democratic presidents and one by a Republican president. By the way, Justice Sotomayor was among the dissenters who, in Justice Steven's opinion, sharply argued that the Court's ruling "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation."

Along the lines of the criticism of the Court in the Bush v. Gore 2000 decision, some are seeing this as a highly politicized decision. This is spurred by the unusual circumstance of the Court's invitation to hear the case, making it look like a deliberate political set-up by Chief Justice Roberts and the other conservative justices. As Justice Stevens put it, this resulted in "elevating the majority's agenda over the litigant's submissions."

The decision equates the First Amendment rights of corporations to those of individuals, which is highly controversial. While framed as an association of individuals and including nonprofit corporations and unions, the Court's majority clearly ignored the problem of the concentration of corporate power and the fact that corporations have many ways they can express themselves through PACs and other means. It also ignored the growing economic inequality in the United States and its negative implications for the value of free speech and a democratic politics. And, as occurred with the health insurance companies in the health care debate, the Court's majority seemed to strangely portray corporations as victims. "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside of the majority of this Court," Justice Stevens concluded, "would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." The First Amendment was, in other words, treated in overly abstract terms despite the concrete evidence that it shouldn't be.

Given the impact of social class on political participation from voting to campaign contributing, this Supreme Court ruling serves to further disadvantage the Latino community in the political process. This includes the problem of the poor representation of Latinos in the decision-making levels of the major corporations that the Supreme Court just further empowered. As the politics of health insurance reform clearly illustrate, corporate influence is disproportionate and debilitating to populist changes, making Latinos highly marginalized politically in these policy debates.

For the Latino community, this new situation requires some different thinking about how to hold the corporate sector more accountable to its needs and social policy agenda. It is a challenge that comes amidst charges or suspicions by many that too many of our leaders and organizations are increasingly captives of the big corporations. Who, in this context, is ultimately setting the Latino agenda?

The Citizens United ruling is an urgent call to the Latino leadership to critically reassess our community's relationship to corporate power. For a community that is still largely poor and working class, how do we define such a relationship? For a community that represents close to a $1 trillion in buying power, how do we leverage this economic lever and for what? To date, we really haven't come up with adequate answers to these questions. But recent developments tell us that we better start coming up with some--and soon!

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