Corporations Cozy Up to Judges

May 29, 2013
Sabina Khan & Kaitlin Sopoc-Belknap

If you were a corporation and wanted to influence government for your own benefit, choosing to persuade judges is a far easier task (and less expensive) than persuading Congress or the White House. Although, Monsanto recently made headlines when they partnered with Senator Roy Blunt to sneak protections for the GMO industry into a recently passed appropriations act, success like this is hard earned in the legislature. Now Monsanto faces what will be a highly publicized repeal effort.

The ability to persuade Judges has immediate benefits. Say, for instance, that your negligence accidentally results in an oil-rig blowing up, killing several workers onboard, and dumping millions of barrels of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s much more expedient to have a judge use creative interpretation of existing law to find in your favor during the consequential lawsuits. It would just be awkward to pursue new legislation to save your tail after the incident had already occurred. Risk adverse corporate giants either recognize the benefits of having courts side with them in these situations, or they are simply big supporters of educating our judges.

According to a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, “conservative foundations, multinational oil companies and a prescription drug maker were the most frequent sponsors of more than 100 expense-paid educational seminars attended by federal judges over a 4 1/2-year period.” About 185 federal judges participated in these “educational” events which were sponsored by multinational corporations such as ExxonMobil, Pfizer and BP.

These seminars are clearly designed to encourage judicial principles that would benefit the sponsors. According to the investigators, Justice Carl A. Barbier happens to have attended at least one of these conferences in 2009, which was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, Shell Oil Company, and Exxon Mobil Corporation. Barbier has since dismissed a wrongful death case against Exxon and now finds himself presiding over the BP Deepwater Horizon cases. In an ongoing trial, it is up to him to determine whether or not BP is grossly negligent and liable for tens of billions of dollars in Clean Water Act damages.

Sponsoring seminars and conferences are not the only ways that profiteers have found a way to interact with the judiciary. Pennsylvania Judges Mark Ciavarilla Jr. and Michael Conahan are respectively serving 28 year and 18 year prison sentences after being accused of accepting millions of dollars from the private prison industry and subsequently handing out harsh juvenile sentences to fill their cells.

Corporate influence has been growing within our government for many years, along with policies that have upwardly redistributed greater portions of the nation’s treasure and resources to the already wealthy. Through judicial ruling, corporations have attained “legal personhood” and the same inherent rights that are endowed upon people. They have used those rights to insert themselves into our electoral and legislative processes, and have found in the judiciary another pathway to ensure their interests are served.

Perhaps the silver lining to the corporate storm cloud, which brought us the economic crash of 2008, is that most Americans have awakened to the fact that our democracy is suffering under the weight of corporate personhood. Many of them are making efforts to reverse the trend. One way people are making a difference is by volunteering with Move to Amend, The Campaign to End Corporate Personhood.