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Supreme Court Chooses Dark Money Billionaires Over Environment in Historic McCutcheon v. FEC Ruling
Environmental groups believe a large favor was handed to corporations, billionaires and the campaigns they fund when U.S. Supreme Court justices decided Wednesday to strike down overall limits on campaign contributions.
The 5-4 decision in the case of coal executive Shaun McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission (FEC) means that individual contributors no longer face a cap on how many candidates and parties they can fund in an election cycle. That unnerves environmental groups who have been fighting against the once-quiet contributions of coal and fossil fuel supporters like the Koch Brothers who fund legislators that favor anti-renewable energy policies.
"The Supreme Court's decision today in McCutcheon v. FEC fundamentally contradicts the values that sustain our democracy and undermines the notion that our government functions of, by, and for the people," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote in a statement following the decision.
"To be clear, today the Court capitulated to a coal executive's demand that he and his fellow big polluters be allowed to dump millions more of their corrupt dollars into politics."
That coal executive is Shaun McCutcheon of Alabama who bristled at being unable to spread his funds to 27 congress members in 2012. Now, he and his other contributors will have no such worry.
"The McCutcheon ruling shows that the decades-long crisis with money in politics—a serious problem accelerated by Citizens United—has just been turned up another notch," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “With these two rulings, corporations and billionaires like the Koch brothers will be able to use their money to buy more influence in more places, gaining a tighter grip on our government."
Hauter pointed to some statistics the Center for Responsive Politics that illustrate how much influence the oil and gas industries already had on politics before Wednesday's ruling. Spending more than $145 million to lobby in Washington, oil and gas was one of the top five industries in terms of political spending. Exxon, Chevron, BP and Koch Industries top most of the annual lists of top funders within the oil and gas realm.
Without an aggregate limit, the Court allows individuals to contribute up to $3.6 million during an election cycle to benefit the parties, candidates and political action committees of his or her liking. The limit was previously $123,200.
"After decades of funding think tanks and judges to promote radical ideas equating money with speech and corporations with people, the big-money men and women who want to have the government in their pocket are at their apex," Claiborne Deming wrote in a statement on behalf of The Story of Stuff Project. "But history tells us that after hitting the top, the pendulum will begin to swing the other way."
Brune's statement exhibited a similar sense of optimism, regarding the ruling as a chance to galvanize those who disagree with it.
"This decision isn't just an egregious attempt to cede our democracy to corporate rule—it is an opportunity to organize the 91 percent of Americans who want something done about corrupt money in politics," he said. "The Supreme Court and big polluters have made it clear what side they are on.
Now, we will make clear that its the wrong side."
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The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.