When President Obama criticized Citizens United two years ago in his State of the Union address, at least three justices came back at him with pitchforks and shovels. In the end, most court watchers scored it a draw. But when a comedian with a huge national platform started ridiculing the court last summer, the stakes changed completely. This is no pointy-headed deconstruction unspooling on the legal blogs. Colbert has spent the past few months making every part of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizen United look utterly ridiculous. And the court, which has no access to cameras (by its own choosing), no press arm, and no discernible comedic powers, has had to stand by and take it on the chin.
It all started when Colbert announced that, as permitted by Citizens United, he planned to form a super PAC (“Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow”). As he explained to his viewers, his hope was that “Colbert Nation could have a voice, in the form of my voice, shouted through a megaphone made of cash … the American dream. And that dream is simple. That anyone, no matter who they are, if they are determined, if they are willing to work hard enough, someday they could grow up to create a legal entity which could then receive unlimited corporate funds, which could be used to influence our elections.”
Then last June, like a winking, eyebrow-wagging Mr. Smith, Colbert went to Washington and testified before the FEC, which granted him permission to launch his super PAC (over the objections of his parent company Viacom) and accept unlimited contributions from his fans so he might sway elections. (He tweeted before his FEC appearance that PAC stands for “Plastic And/Or Cash.”) In recent weeks, Colbert has run several truly insane attack ads (including one accusing Mitt Romney of being a serial killer). Then, with perfect comedic pitch, Colbert handed off control of his super PAC to Jon Stewart (lampooning the FEC rules about coordination between “independent PACS” and candidates with a one-page legal document and a Vulcan mind meld). Colbert then managed to throw his support to non-candidate Herman Cain in the South Carolina primary, placing higher on the ballot than Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann.
The line between entertainment and the court blurred even further late last month when Colbert had former Justice John Paul Stevens on his show to discuss his dissent in Citizens United. When a 91-year-old former justice is patiently explaining to a comedian that corporations are not people, it’s clear that everything about the majority opinion has been reduced to a punch line.