In Contrast to the Supreme Court’s Early and Consistent Support for Corporations, Expanding Democratic Rights to Disenfranchised Groups Has Involved Extended Grassroots Struggles
Unlike the long, torturous process that women, racial minorities, and the gay and lesbian community endured in winning their rights, corporations successfully waged campaigns to establish their rights and win greater freedom from business regulations in the courts of law – much sooner, more easily, and not based on national consensus.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement began in 1848 at a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and lasted decades. Attempting to win a judicial victory granting women the right to vote, Virginia Minor, a suffragist, applied for voter registration in 1872 in Missouri, a state that prohibited women from voting. After she was denied registration, Minor sued the state, claiming that voting was a privilege or immunity protected by the 14th Amendment. In 1874, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Minor v. Happersett that the 14th Amendment did not extend the right to vote to female citizens.
Through organized rallies, protests and action, the national movement for women’s suffrage grew and pressure built in Congress and the states. In 1920, more than 60 years after the movement began, the 19th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting voter discrimination on the basis of sex and overturning the Minor decision.
In addition to women’s suffrage, Americans have amended the Constitution 6 additional times to overrule the Court, removing barriers to political equality and strengthening our democracy. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments corrected the notorious Dred Scott decision that tried to lock in slavery and oppression as Constitutional law. The 17th Amendment created the popular election of U.S. Senators, the 24th amendment abolished the poll tax, and in 1971, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18.
In marked contrast, and despite broad public opinion in favor of business regulations and campaign finance limits, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled on the side of corporations’ constitutional rights. Adam Winkler explains in We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights, whether it involved railroad, tobacco, oil, automobile, insurance, steel, newspaper, or other interests, and regardless of whether the Supreme Court was liberal or conservative, major corporations have mobilized significant resources to press for, and frequently win, court decisions to defeat unwanted government regulations.
Supreme Court decisions over the past half century are particularly egregious for having sold out our democracy to corporations, billionaires, and lobbyists. The Citizens United v. the FEC Supreme Court Ruling in 2010 was one of a series of Supreme Court decisions stretching back to Buckley v. Valeo in the 1970s that have eroded citizens’ ability to regulate election spending so as to control corruption and incentivize politicians to seek broad citizen support. Now wealthy donors and special interests are free to spend without limits through Super PACs and “dark money” groups.
Grassroots activism will certainly be required once again to effect change and restore equal representation for all by limiting the toxic influence of big money on politics. An amendment to the Constitution is necessary, as it is extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court will reverse its position on this issue or that Congress will act on its own as its members are the primary beneficiaries of the current system.
Overwhelming majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents oppose the corruption and influence of money in politics and support comprehensive reform of our campaign finance system. To date, 20 states have passed resolutions supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which authorizes Congress and the states to regulate election spending. How long will it take for citizen activism across the nation to build pressure for enacting such an amendment? – the example of the suffragists shows how grit and determination can get the job done.