Obama is right on the (foreign) money

Right-wingers scream that Obama distorted the Citizens United decision. But Alito's own remarks show they're wrong

By Joe Conason
Published January 28, 2010 10:29PM (EST)

From Glenn Beck to Joe Scarborough,  right-wing voices are loudly complaining that President Obama’s remarks about the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United were false and  insulting to the court. They’ve picked up on Justice Samuel Alito’s muttered "not true" as somehow proving that the president was wrong to complain that the decision will permit foreign special interests to influence American elections.

Although the scope of the latest problem created by the court may be a matter of speculation, there is no doubt that unbridled corporate contributions will open the way for foreign interests and individuals to intervene in U.S. politics -- so long as their money is laundered through a company incorporated in this country.

So warned Justice John Paul Stevens in his partial dissent from the majority decision, saying that the decision by the court’s Republican majority "would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans" -- and the other three justices, appointed by Democrats, noted their agreement.

Why does Stevens think so? Perhaps because he and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised that issue with Theodore Olson, the lead counsel for Citizens United (his disreputable comrades from the Clinton wars). When Olson argued that under prior Supreme Court decisions, corporations "are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment," Ginsburg asked whether that "includes today’s mega-corporations, where many of the investors may be foreign individuals or entities." Olson replied that the court had made no distinction "based on the nature of the entity that might own a share of a corporation."

Ginsburg pressed further. "Nowadays there are foreign interests, even foreign governments, that own not one share but a goodly number of shares." To which Olson answered, "I submit that the Court’s decisions in connection with the First Amendment and corporations have in the past made no such distinction."

None other than Alito himself piped up to affirm the same point moments later.

"Well, Mr. Olson," he asked, "do you think that media corporations that are owned or principally owned by foreign shareholders have less First Amendment rights than other media corporations in the United States?" Replied Olson, "I don’t think so, Justice Alito, and certainly there is no record to suggest that there is any kind of problem based upon that."

No problem with foreign-owned media corporations publishing and broadcasting in the United States, perhaps -- although some critics have wondered from time to time whether the Washington Times and the Unification Church were acting as instruments of a foreign power. But if foreign-owned corporations possess fully the same rights as citizens to participate in elections under the majority decision -- as Olson and Alito indicated -- then we could face a serious problem indeed.

So based on the argument articulated by the Republican lawyer and the Republican justice, Obama was right and his critics are either misinformed or dishonest. Other nonpartisan experts concur, noting that companies like Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan government, are now free to intervene at will in American elections. No doubt the Republicans will feel deeply irritated should Hugo Chavez decide to spend a few million bucks in a congressional or Senate election to get rid of one of theirs. 

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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