Testimony of Benjamin T. Jealous, President of People For the American Way, Before Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on “What’s Wrong with the Supreme Court: Big Money Assaults on our Judiciary

Thank you Chairman Whitehouse and Ranking Member Kennedy for the opportunity to testify today.

My name is Benjamin Todd Jealous. I am president of People For the American Way.

We are more than one million Americans dedicated to the ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice for all.

Throughout my career as a community organizer, investigative reporter, and civil rights leader, I have been inspired by Supreme Court rulings that moved the country closer to the promise of equal justice.

That promise has been undermined by the pro-corporate activism of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts.

Today I will touch briefly on three areas.

First, voting and democracy.

In Citizens United, a 5–4 majority ruled that it is unconstitutional for Congress to protect our elections from unlimited spending by corporations. Citizens United and other rulings enhanced corporate power by unleashing a flood of big money and secret spending.

Corporations’ power was further enhanced by the court’s decision to gut Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 provided protection to Black and Latino voters — the same voters who are more likely to support worker protections and environmental regulations.

Roberts said it was OK to get rid of Section 5 because voter discrimination wasn’t as bad as it used to be. Legally, it made no sense to get rid of preclearance because it was working. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

But it had a powerful political impact. Within hours of that ruling, some states began to enforce voting restrictions and throw people off voting rolls. That continues today. As we speak, 43 state legislatures are considering laws that would make it harder for people to vote — especially people less likely to support pro-corporate, anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-worker policies.

That brings me to my second point: the Roberts Court’s rulings against workers and unions undermines an important check on corporate power.

In our country, political power is built by organized money or organized people. In the Janus case, Justice Neil Gorsuch provide the 5th vote to overturn longstanding workplace rules and weaken unions. That tipped the balance of power even more strongly toward corporations and organized money.

My third point is about religious freedom.

People For the American Way strongly supports the First Amendment and its protections for religious freedom. They have allowed diverse communities of faith to flourish in our country.

George Washington expressed the spirit of our Founders in a letter to a Jewish congregation. He assured them that they shared the same rights as other Americans, adding the U.S. government gave bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance.

The Roberts Court has contorted these values. It has converted religious freedom from a shield to protect worshipers into a sword to attack workers.

The 5–4 ruling in Hobby Lobby allowed corporations to deny legally required health benefits to workers based on company owners’ religious beliefs. Letting corporations use religious claims to evade laws designed to protect workers was, as Justice Ginsburg said, entering a minefield.

In closing, we do know just how far the corporate war on the people’s court will go. We do know that the pro-corporate bias of the current Supreme Court is a long-term threat to programs that millions of American workers and retirees depend on — including Social Security and Medicare.

While I am a Democrat, it is important to note this is not a partisan issue. Whether you spend more time with liberals or libertarians, you will hear concerns over the power that big corporations have in our society and government.

That is why bipartisan majorities of Americans support the policies included in the For the People Act, which would limit corporate power over our elections.

As members of the Senate, you have the power to pass the For the People Act. And as members of this committee, you can support the confirmation of fair-minded judges and consider other reforms to rescue our courts from corporate dominance.

Thank you.

President, People For the American Way. Visiting Scholar, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Former National President, NAACP.