The Story of How Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Allowed Corporations to Rule America
If there was one thing both Democrats and Republicans would agree on, it’s this:
Corporations have way too much influence in our government.
So, how and when did this happen?
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting the amount of money corporations can spend on political advertising in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Former President Jimmy Carter accurately summarized how many Americans felt regarding the Court’s decision in a July 2015 interview with radio talk show host Thom Hartmann:
“[Citizens United] violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members.”
Unfortunately for the American people, corporations have gripped the legislative, executive, and judicial branches into a political stranglehold. Take, for instance, the fact that 17 corporate donors contributed nearly three-quarters of the 2016 Democratic National Convention funding, with companies such as Bank of America, Comcast, and Facebook donating over $1 million.
Their lobbyists were treated like Rockstar VIP guests. How did corporations amass so much political power within both national parties?
It all started with a man by the name of Lewis Powell.
Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell
In 1971, Powell—a former prominent corporate attorney—wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum outlined how wealthy donors could take over both US public opinion and, essentially, the government itself. In it, he wrote:
“Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change… 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.”
Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence, corporate activists and various lobbying groups headed his advice and began establishing numerous institutions designed to sway public opinion. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heritage Foundation were founded in 1973. The Cato Institute was founded in 1977, followed by Citizens for a Sound Economy in 1984.
According to Thom Hartmann’s book “The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America”, 175 companies employed registered lobbyists in 1971. By 1982, there were nearly 2,500.
Today, tens of thousands of companies have hired registered lobbyists to try to influence policymaking.
In December, 1971, months after he wrote his memo, President Richard Nixon appointed Powell to serve on the Supreme Court. The FBI was unable to unearth Powell’s memo during his Senate confirmation procedure.
The American public didn’t even know about Powell’s memo until investigative journalist Jack Anderson wrote a scathing article in The Washington Post excavating the infamous letter. In it, Mr. Anderson commented that:
“Senators… never got a chance to ask Powell whether he might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice and to influence the court in behalf of business interests.”
Powell served on the Court for 15 years before he retired in 1987. Among other accomplishments, he wrote the majority opinion in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, in which the Court ruled that state laws regulating corporate political spending were unconstitutional.
In Buckley v. Valeo, Powell voted with the majority to rule that political money is speech. In Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, the Supreme Court ruled that advertising is a protected form of free speech.
A biographical account published by Oyez noted that: “Powell had always planned on becoming a lawyer because he viewed their roles as shaping history.”
Powell did, indeed, shape history. And now we must shape it back to where the people have more say over how our government is run.
Therefore, the first step to cleaning up government is to appoint Supreme Court Justices who are willing to overturn Citizen’s United.
Let’s be sure to keep this mind as we head to the polls in November.
Article written by Jett James Pruitt
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