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The Roberts Court Thinks Corporations Have More Rights Than You Do

The chief justice continues his First Amendment revolution

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The Supreme Court of the mid-twentieth century led a First Amendment revolution, turning a rarely enforced constitutional provision into the crown jewel of our Bill of Rights. While these rulings protected the speech of all Americans, they most frequently came in cases involving disfavored or even despised litigants, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Nazi sympathizers. The Roberts Court is leading a free speech revolution of its own, but this time for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy.

This revolution is unfolding across a wide range of First Amendment provisions and doctrines, from Citizens United v. FEC, which protects political speech by corporations to Sorrell v. IMS, which makes it easier for corporations to challenge laws that regulate commercial speech. Today’s bitterly divided rulings in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn continue this trend by turning the First Amendment’s protection for the free exercise of religion and freedom of association into a sword to free corporations and other powerful interests from government regulation. More than the Court’s earlier First Amendment revolution, this series of deeply divided rulings resembles the aggressive, divisive, and now overturned rulings of the Lochner era, named after the infamous 1905 case Lochner v. New York, one of a number of cases in which the Supreme Court of the early twentieth century that struck down laws designed to prevent the exploitation of workers. During this era, the Supreme Court repeatedly expanded the constitutional rights of corporations and other businesses while dismissively treating the government’s interest in economic regulation. Today, we are seeing a revival of Lochner in the name of protecting free speech and free exercise of religion.    

This story, of course, begins in earnest with the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, the case that, perhaps more than any other, defines the Roberts Court. There the Court’s five conservatives united to hold that the Constitution gives corporations the right to spend unlimited sums of money on elections. Corporations cannot vote in elections, run for office, or serve as elected officials, but the Court nevertheless ruled that they can overwhelm the political process by using money generated by special privileges that corporations alone possess. In 2011, the Court continued this corporate-friendly trend in Sorrell v. IMS, holding that forms of market research, such as data mining, are “speech” protected by the First Amendment. 

This term, Chief Justice Roberts has opened new fronts in his First Amendment revolution. Prior to 2014, the Supreme Court had never held that a secular, for-profit corporation is entitled to protections for the free exercise of religion and had never struck down a federal law limiting campaign contributions. This year, the conservative Justices did both. In both cases, the Court’s conservative majority built off of Citizens United. In Hobby Lobby, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court held that closely-held, secular, for-profit corporations were entitled to the guarantee of the free exercise of religion, treating corporations simply as the artificial embodiment of its owner or shareholders. Dismissing the fact that corporations cannot pray and have never, in more than two centuries, been conferred with rights of conscience and human dignity, the Court’s conservative bloc concluded that secular for-profit corporations are entitled to a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-sponsored health insurance plans cover the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives. The Court’s opinion—the first in history to require a religious exemption from generally-applicable regulation be given to a commercial enterprise—exalts the rights of corporations over those of individuals, giving corporations the right to impose their owners’ religious beliefs and extinguish the rights of their employees. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg detailed in a powerful dissenting opinion, the majority abandoned constitutional principles and precedent and empowered commercial enterprises to “deny legions of women who do not hold their employees’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”

While framed as a narrow minimalist ruling, Justice Alito’s opinion in Hobby Lobby is anything but. First, its central holding strongly suggests that all corporations—not merely those like Hobby Lobby that are closely-held—are entitled to demand religious exemptions from generally-applicable business regulation. Second, its reasoning invites an avalanche of new claims by corporations and others for religious exemptions, making it very difficult for the government to defeat claims for religious exemptions, even when those exemptions extinguish the rights of employees. The Court’s opinion, as Justice Ginsburg explained, opens the floodgates for a number of “me too” religious objections by other companies on matters ranging from anti-discrimination law to other medical procedures such as blood transfusions or vaccinations.

Earlier this term, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court’s conservatives continued their assault on the nation’s campaign finance laws, striking down the federal aggregate limit that permitted individuals to contribute up to $123,000 to candidates per election cycle and opening the floodgates to the wealthiest Americans to contribute millions of dollars at a time to elect candidates to do their bidding. As in Citizens United, the conservative majority turned a blind eye both to constitutional principle and reality, treating the $123,000 contribution limit as an especially severe burden on freedom of speech and artificially limiting the government interest in ensuring electoral integrity to cases of bribery. To the Founders, preventing corruption of the government was at the core of the Constitution, necessary to ensure, as Madison put it, that government was “dependent on the people alone” and that our system of representative democracy remained “not [for] the rich more than the poor.” Rather than grappling with the government’s authority to ensure electoral integrity—an interest deeply rooted in the Constitution’s text and history—Chief Justice Roberts caricatured it. While campaign contribution limits still remain, it seems only a matter of time before those too are invalidated by the Roberts’ conservative majority.

Harris, too, represented a fundamental reinterpretation of the First Amendment, striking down an Illinois law that allowed public-sector unions for home health care workers to collect fees from non-union workers to cover the costs of a union’s bargaining activities. In doing so, Justice Alito dismissed a long line of precedents going back nearly 40 years that had upheld precisely these kinds of arrangements, dealing a serious blow to organized labor. In past cases, the Roberts Court has upheld government regulation of employee speech, giving the government broad leeway in choosing how to run a workplace. But, in a stark about face, Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion ratcheted up the First Amendment rights of anti-union employees, powerfully illustrating Adam Liptak’s observation that in the Roberts Court, “[f]ree speech often means speech I agree with.” In a blistering dissent, Justice Elena Kagan argued that the Court’s conservative majority was perverting established First Amendment law, effectively creating a special set of First Amendment principles only for union fee cases. 

Justice Alito’s opinion in Harris invites anti-union activists to file a host of new lawsuits aimed at state laws that allow public-sector unions to collect the costs of collective bargaining from union and non-union member alike. Indeed, much of the Harris opinion is devoted to showing why the past precedent in this area is wrong and ought to be overruled. These precedents survive, if at all, by a thread.

Chief Justice John Roberts is known for playing the long game, issuing decisions that, quietly but decisively, move the law to the right. His greatest successes in this area have come in campaign finance cases, where in just a decade, the Court’s opinions have decimated campaign finance law. Today’s decisions in Hobby Lobby and Harris open new avenues for corporate interests looking to attack regulation, and in years to come we are certain to see a host of new challenges to business regulation, all in the name of free speech or free exercise. In the Roberts Court, the First Amendment is a powerful weapon, not for the street corner speaker, but for corporations and wealthy seeking to squelch regulation.