Bribery Unleashed: The Supreme Court's Wealth-Driven Corruption Crisis

Is there a way to reverse the decision by five Republicans on the Supreme Court that it’s OK for billionaires and big corporations to bribe politicians?

Americans are watching with increasing shock and dismay:

— President Biden tried to knock up to $20,000 off the debt of every person in the country with a student loan. Republicans decided this might somehow, someday mean fewer profits for banks — who financially support the GOP — so they sued at the Supreme Court. The Republican appointees on the Court, over the objections of the three Democratic appointees, killed the president’s effort without providing any cogent constitutional rationalization.  

— Scientists have developed lab-grown meat that is healthier, easier on the planet, and, when manufactured at scale, cheaper than beef, pork, or chicken. The animal ag industry freaked out and threw a bunch of cash at Republican members of Congress, who are now trying to outlaw the product before the companies developing it can get to scale. Even the buggywhip makers back in the day didn’t think the way to protect their industry was to buy off politicians (of course that was before five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery).  

— Climate change is devastating our planet and fine particle emissions from trucks cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and illnesses from heart disease, COPD, asthma, and cancer every year. To solve the problem, the EPA put forward new truck emission standards that will phase in between 2027 and 2032. This week, twenty-seven Republican-controlled states whose politicians take money from the fossil fuel industry sued to block the rules and protect the profits of the trucking and petroleum industries.

— Title IX of the federal code, which forbids gender-based discrimination in education, is being extended by the Department of Education to protect members of the queer community. Rightwing Christian groups, which provide billions of dollars and millions of votes to Republicans, pinged state-level politicians, so now Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Oklahoma have filed suit before hand-picked rightwing judges to allow schools to legally trash LGBTQ+ students.

— The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) promulgated a new rule limiting credit card late fees to $8 each, protecting America’s most vulnerable families. The banks pulled the GOP’s chain and Republican senators Tim Scott, John Thune, John Barrasso, Jerry Moran, John Boozman, Steve Daines, Mike Rounds, Thom Tillis, Marsha Blackburn, Kevin Cramer, Mike Braun, Bill Hagerty, and Katie Britt introduced legislation to reverse the policy and allow banks to again screw low-income people.

— In 2003, George W. Bush signed legislation to privatize Medicare through the so-called Medicare Advantage scam, which last year overcharged our government more than $140 billion while denying millions of claims from Americans unfortunate enough to have signed up for it. Republicans on the take from the insurance industry are now pushing a plan to gut or even shut down real Medicare, leaving all seniors to the tender mercies of this predatory industry.

— Ultra-processed foods are accused of causing obesity, diabetes, cancer, and host of other illnesses both physical and mental: American children, who consume as much as two-thirds of their calories from these products, are experiencing an epidemic of obesity and diseases associated with it. With Republican politicians running interference for them, the processed food industry has now succeeded in getting their ultra-processed “food” products placed in thousands of school lunch programs, paid for with our tax dollars. As The Washington Post noted a few months ago, “Republicans have continued to fight stricter standards” and, “Some Republicans are now threatening to block the USDA from further limiting sodium and reducing added sugar in milk…”  

Increasingly, Americans are realizing the cancer eating our democracy is the power of great wealth and Supreme Court-legalized political bribery.

But what can we do?

In a 1978 Republican-only decision written by Lewis Powell (author of the notorious “Powell Memo” which told rich people how to take over our politics, schools, media, and courts), five corrupt members of the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are “persons” with full access to the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment right of free speech. They added that money is the same thing as “free speech,” legalizing political bribery by both billionaires and giant corporations.

In 2010, five other Republicans on the Court doubled down on that Bellotti decision with Citizens United, which overturned hundreds of good government and anti-bribery laws, some dating all the way back to the 19th century. As a result, it’s almost impossible to prosecute any but the most obvious and egregious examples of bribery (see: Menendez) of both American politicians and judges, including billionaires and religious corporations blatantly bribing Supreme Court justices.

Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito openly flaunt the gifts they receive from wealthy interests with business before the Court, as Trump fangirl Aileen Cannon and hundreds of other federal and state court judges are routinely wined and dined at luxury resorts. As long as they continue to rule the way the morbidly rich want and bribery continues to be legal, it appears the gravy train will never end.

Unless we do something about it.

Every single one of these problems — and hundreds more — continue to exist in the face of overwhelming public disapproval because one or another industry or group of rightwing billionaires has been empowered by the Supreme Court’s Bellotti and Citizens United decisions to bribe politicians and judges.

Democrats in Congress must reverse those bizarre, democracy-destroying decisions with a new law declaring an end to this American political crime spree. If they retake the House and hold the Senate and White House this fall, it’ll be their opportunity to re-criminalize bribery of elected officials.  

To do that, they need to defy the Court’s declaration that money is “free speech” and corporations are “persons.” That defiance requires something called “court-stripping.”

Republicans understand exactly what I’m talking about: Since the 1950s, they’ve introduced hundreds of pieces of court-stripping legislation. They tried to do the same thing most recently in 2005 with the Marriage Protection Act, which passed the House of Representatives on July 22, 2004.  

That law, designed to override Supreme Court protections of LGBTQ+ people, contained the following court-stripping paragraph:

“No court created by Act of Congress shall have any jurisdiction, and the Supreme Court shall have no appellate jurisdiction, to hear or decide any question pertaining to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution of, section 1738C or this section.”

In other words, Congress wrote, the Supreme Court has no say in the matter of this particular legislation.

The Marriage Protection Act died in the Senate, but it’s one of hundreds of pieces of court-stripping legislation introduced — almost all by Republicans (House Whip Tom Delay was the master of this) — in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v Board and Roe v Wade.

This process of “court-stripping” is based in Article 3, Section 2 of the US Constitution, which says:

“[T]he supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.”

Regulations? Exceptions?!?

Turns out, the Constitution says Congress can regulate the Court by, for example, expanding the number of its members, determining if Court hearings must be public/televised, or if they must live by a Judicial Code of Conduct (among other things). 

Congress should be doing all these things as soon as possible.

Additionally, Congress can create what the Constitution calls “Exceptions” to the things the Court can rule on. 

In today’s crisis, Congress could say, “Supreme Court, you may no longer rule on whether money in politics is ‘free speech.’ We’re taking that power from you because the Constitution gives it to us and you have screwed it up so badly.”

And, it turns out, Congress has already gone there, most recently creating exceptions to what our courts may do in a law that was passed and signed by President Bush the very next year: The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005

That law explicitly strips from federal courts — including the Supreme Court — their power to hear appeals against the Bush administration detaining, torturing, imprisoning in Guantanamo, or even killing suspected Muslim terrorists. It says:

“[N]o court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba…”

And that’s just the beginning.  There’s even, as the Brennan Center notes, a court-stripping provision in the PATRIOT act of 2001. I lay out dozens of other examples and a history of court-stripping that extends back to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson — an outspoken advocate or reducing the power of the Supreme Court — in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America.

As House Speaker Tom Delay said back in the days of his court-stripping Marriage Protection Act: “Judges need to be intimidated” and “Congress should take no prisoners in dealing with the courts.”

Putting forward such a law would highlight how Citizen United’s SCOTUS-legalized political bribery is at the core of our political dysfunction, even if it doesn’t pass Congress and even if the Court itself strikes it down.

Rightwing oligarchs and giant corporations have now taken total control of the entire GOP and corrupted more than a few Democrats, all while polluting our public discourse with their think tanks and media outlets: such legislation would, at the very least, highlight this and pressure the Court to change their policies. “Intimidate” the Court, to quote Tom Delay.

Congress must stand up for what’s right and is consistent with American values: Legally bribed politicians and judges aren’t that.

It’s high time to end the bribery and get something done for We the People.

Thom Hartmann

May 15, 2024