The U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling that lets corporations spend all they want to punish political enemies and reward political friends is a reminder that the panel's Republican majority has become one more potent weapon in the Right's already intimidating arsenal.
Over the past several decades, the American Right has assembled such an array of political weaponry ranging from a vast propaganda apparatus that defines "reality" for tens of millions of Americans to specialized attack groups that can target troublesome figures in the press or academia that it's hard to envision how this powerful grip on U.S. democracy can now be broken.
The Right's influence is so wide and so deep that it can front for wealthy special interests under the guise of "populism" and persuade many Americans that their real enemy is not Big Corporations, but Big Government.
Guided by Fox News and other well-financed parts of the right-wing media, the Tea Partiers apparently believe they are engaged in a movement to free the Republic from the tyranny of the federal government, when they're actually helping consolidate the power of corporations against the only force that can possibly check corporate domination, a democratized federal government.
Adding to this political imbalance, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 on Jan. 21 to cede more power to corporate money by striking down restrictions on what corporations and other special interests can do to finance attacks on or support for a particular political candidate.
The five Republican-appointed justices left little doubt that they will be very active when partisan questions come before the court, despite their prior assurances that they detest "activist judges" and despite their promises to show great respect for legal precedents. The campaign-finance decision shattered decades of precedents and tilts the political playing field even more in the Republican direction.
This transformation of the federal courts into a powerful line of defense for Republican and corporate interests began several decades ago when the Right denounced "liberal judges" who ended racial segregation and restricted state anti-abortion laws.
Packing the courts with politically reliable partisans became a key behind-the-scenes goal of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Yet, because turnover on the Supreme Court is slow, Reagan took aim first at the influential U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., appointing hardliners like Laurence Silberman and David Sentelle.
Reagan's strategy paid off after the Iran-Contra scandal exploded in November 1986, with disclosures that Reagan's White House had been running a secret war in Nicaragua funded, in part, by illegal weapons sales to the radical Islamic government of Iran. White House officials were caught lying about both Nicaragua and Iran.
The Reagan administration's response was to sacrifice a few low-level officials, such as Lt. Col. Oliver North, and insist that senior officials had been kept in the dark.
To avert a constitutional crisis, congressional Democrats mostly went along with this cover story, concentrating their criticism on North and letting Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush mostly off the hook.
The Walsh Factor
However, the Iran-Contra cover-up ran into trouble when special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh conducted a methodical investigation that stripped away one layer of lies after another.
Walsh was a former Republican judge who was appointed to run the Iran-Contra criminal investigation by a three-judge panel then headed by another Republican, senior U.S. Appeals Court Judge George MacKinnon.
However, both Walsh and MacKinnon were old-school Republican conservatives from the Eisenhower era. They took seriously their duty to pursue justice and the truth.
Despite legal difficulties created by congressional grants of immunity, Walsh won convictions against North in 1989 and Reagan's national security adviser John Poindexter in 1990. Republicans scrambled to keep the scandal from spreading to Reagan and his successor, President George H.W. Bush.
Some of that fury played out within judicial circles. In Firewall, Walsh's memoir about the Iran-Contra scandal, the special prosecutor described how black-robed Republican appointees to the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington "waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army."
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