The Supreme Court's recent decision in the
Hobby Lobby case has polarized religious and women's rights groups. Religious leaders
see it as a victory for religious freedom. Women's rights groups see
it as a blow to the rights of women to make contraceptive choices.
While those issues were certainly part of the decision, there is actually
something larger happening. The case is really about the enlargement of
corporate power. It is not an aberration, but part of a trend in Supreme
Court decisions in the last several years.
Large corporations and their cohorts such as the Chamber of Commerce are
on a roll with the Supreme Court. The most famous example is the pro-corporate
decision in the Citizens United case from 2010. In that case, the court
granted corporations the right to spend unlimited money to influence political
campaigns. Basically, the court held that corporations and other business
organizations have the same rights as real people to contribute money
to political campaigns. Conversely, it held that trying to restrict those
rights violates the First Amendment's free speech guarantees.
The recent Hobby Lobby decision is consistent with this concept of corporations
as people. The Supreme Court held that "closely held" corporations
(such as those owned by one family) could not be required to provide certain
contraceptives to their employees through health plans. The Court held
that a corporation's owners could not be forced to do this if use
of those contraceptives went against the owners' sincere religious beliefs.
The Court was not troubled by the fact that the religious freedom law under
which the case was decided only guarantees freedom of religion to people.
As in Citizens United, the court found that corporations basically are
people. Apparently, however, the only people that mattered to the Court
were the corporation's owners - not its many rank and file employees
who might want different things.
The Court also failed to address one glaring inconsistency: that the entire
purpose of corporations is to legally separate the owners from their business
organization. People form corporations to shield themselves from personal
liability for the corporation's acts. They can do this because a corporation
is considered an entirely separate entity under the law.
In other words, the entire point of a corporation is that its owners are
not one and the same with the business organization. However, the Supreme
Court thinks corporations should have their cake and eat it too. While
the owners still don't have any personal
liability for their corporation, they now get to exercise their personal
rights of free speech and religious freedom through the corporation.
This is internally inconsistent. It is consistent, however, with the Supreme
Court's overall trajectory. That trajectory is leading us toward more
and more rights for large corporations and their wealthy owners. It is
also leading us toward corporations getting all the same rights and benefits
as people, with none of the corresponding legal obligations and liabilities.
Meanwhile, the corporate employees, and people who want to enforce their
legal rights against corporations, are the big losers.