Guest's blog

5 Ways Citizens United Has Screwed Over Our Democracy

Five years after the Supreme Court handed down Citizens United, the decision continues to have a widespread impact on the state, federal, and even international level.  As evidenced by the record spending 2014 mid-term elections, the unchecked influence of corporate and business interests through super PAC (Political Action Committee) donations has significantly altered the operation of American politics.  

1. Elections are no longer influenced by people, but by money.  And some people have a lot of money.

​Before Citizens United, nearly half of all states restricted corporate spending in elections.  Since the decision, these state level restrictions have been repealed or modified, opening the floodgates for corporate donations to state and local elections.  Spending on state candidates for governor, attorney general, and even local school boards has reached record levels as corporations become increasingly aware of just how easy it is to influence local elections.

Corporate donations to super PACs have corroded the influence of local elections.  The potential for just one donor to use his or her wealth to single-handedly alter an election in “pay-to-play” elections where only the well-connected can reasonably run for office is worrisome.  If money is speech, then corporations clearly have more speech than real people.  

2. Corporations enjoy unbounded spending—and thus unbounded influence.

Weak disclosure laws are problematic when combined with the enhanced abilities of single corporate donors under Citizens United.  Single donors will max out contributions to candidates and then turn to super PACs to contribute even more.  This raises concerns that candidates who directly solicit donations to super PACs are using the groups’ unbounded spending power to circumvent campaign finance limits, particularly when that super PAC supports a single candidate.  A 2014 complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the Campaign Legal Center . . .

Pozzolan Mine Wearing out the People of Mt. Popa

“I have to eat my lunch so late so that I will not be hungry again in the evening,” the woman herding cattle told me as she ate a simple meal of cooked rice, beans and chili. On a sunny day in June 2014, I took a trip to the Mt. Popa area to conduct my research on land confiscation caused by a pozzolan mining project. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano near Bagan in central Myanmar, best known as a pilgrimage site with many important Nat (spirit) temples and relic sites on the top of the mountain.

When I visited one of the villages where I was doing my research, I saw the old woman beside the road. The afternoon sun was beating down and the ground was hot. This skinny little woman was wearing a shabby old cloth on her head to protect her from the sunlight and holding a stick in her hand for herding her cattle. Behind her, I observed a wide expanse of mining area and the majestic Popa Mountain in the distance.

From our conversation, I learned that she is one of the many farmers who lost their land due to the pozzolan mining project. In 2004, the Ministry of Electricity No2 confiscated 246.2 acres of farmland belonging to local farmers in order to mine pozzolan powder. Pozzolan powder is a type of volcanic ash with high value used to enrich cement for the construction of dams in other parts of the country.

As she continued her meager lunch, I noticed her face was weathered and she appeared exhausted and very old.  I was shocked when she told me that she is only fifty-two years old. Her wrinkles illustrate how tired she is and the hardships she has suffered. With sadness in her voice . . .

The Victims of a Mega Development Project

On a cool day during the rainy season, I visited a village that had recently been relocated due to a large-scale development project.  On my walk around the village, I met one of the relocated villagers. He is 54 years old and has a big family. Prior to being relocated, he was a carpenter and planted vegetables on his land. Now, he does not have a stable job so he struggles to earn an income. He is depressed. As we spoke, I saw how upset he was as he told me his experience and the contrast between his original village and the relocation site.

“We were living happily with a regular income and doing agricultural work in the original village. Now, where is my land for planting? What will we do? As you can see, dirty water is also flooding under my house so our family breathes this terrible smell every day." 

With tears in his eyes, he said that his wife had passed away 15 days after their relocation. As a consequence of his terrible living situation in the new village, his son, who had been in Grade 11, dropped out of school to take up work in a factory. I felt sorry to see and to hear about their suffering.

Myanmar is a developing country that is undergoing political, economic and social changes. One such change is the ever-increasing number of development projects. Our country is always inviting local investment as well as foreign direct investment into the country as it seeks to benefit from a globalized world. All too often, these projects result in widespread land confiscation and other negative consequences for local communities. The topic I chose to research for my fieldwork with the EarthRights School Myanmar is one of these big development projects in . . .

Do development projects bring happiness?


Based on my own experience working closely to development projects, I have realized that there are different definitions of development and happiness.

From the government’s perspective, development will improve people’s lives and therefore bring people happiness. They say that modernization or urbanization is the means for people to obtain this happiness and so they try to bring big development projects like mining and hydropower dams to communities. In reality however, most of the benefits go to investors and governors. What have communities received from this type of development? Suffering, hurt, tears, and unhappiness.

On our first day arriving arriving in Northeastern Thailand on a field trip with the EarthRights School Mekong, we discussed this idea with local villagers. There were many perspectives about these questions, however almost all of the villagers we talked to said that they used to be happy. They were happy because they were able to rely on nature and lived collectively and without harm to their livelihood. Even though the villagers weren’t rich people, they felt that they used to be a rich community before the government started bringing development projects to their village.

When we asked them about development, the villagers replied that their definition of development was the support of community activities such as training in technical agriculture and eco-tourism. They said that it didn’t only mean being asked whether or not the community agreed with the projects proposed by the government, but being asked what type of development they really wanted. Otherwise, they claimed, development projects are harmful and not really development at all.

The community knows clearly how to develop sustainably. Supporting their own decision-making power and developing the existing potential in the community is a much more sustainable form of development. Respecting their perspectives is the best way to help. If a . . .

Mother Somboun: A Happy Life on the Moun River

Mother Somboun

 “For me, development is not about modernization. It is not about new technologies and modern materials. For me, development comes from inside the heart—what I call moral development.”

These words, along with the beautiful smile of Mother Somboun, came to my mind while reflecting on my recent visit to the Rasi Salai community in Sisaket Province with the EarthRights School Mekong.

Mae (‘Mother’) Somboun has lived in the Rasi Salai community for a long time. Mae Somboun is just a regular woman, but the people of Rasi Salai call her ‘Mother’ to show the deep respect they have for her and her role within the community.

Mother Somboun is critical of the government’s approach to development and the harms of focusing only on economic growth. The government did not even ask people what they thought or if they even wanted that kind of development in their communities. She told us that the development the government provided for her community was not real development because the benefits were not going to the community; the benefits were only for the authorities and for the people living in the city. The villagers in Rasi Salai gained nothing but the loss of their land and the disappearance of their rich food source. She added, “If the government says what they do is development, what kind of development is it? And for whom?”

Mae Somboun is what many people call a ‘long-life fighter’. In addition to being a first generation campaigner against the Rasi Salai Dam, she is also well known for her involvement in the Assembly of the Poor’s 99-day sit-in protest in front of the Government House in Bangkok in 1997. She is currently one of leaders in the Rasi Salai Learning Center.  It is no wonder that many people from both . . .

Spotlight on Earth Rights Defenders in Thailand

I am so lucky to have had opportunities to meet inspiring people who have dedicated their lives to public interest.  These people believe strongly in the capacities of the weak, and they work to protect earth rights. One of the most inspiring people is my senior colleague, Ms. Supaporn Malailoy or P’Noo.

P’Noo was one of the establishers of EnLAWTHAI foundation.  EnLAWTHAI was founded in 2001 with a mission to monitor and enhance positive environmental law as well as to strengthen industrial affected communities through providing legal training, promoting environmental campaigns, and being a representative in environmental lawsuits. As a general manager, P’Noo is still a key figure in the foundation.

P’Noo has given me invaluable inspiration and ambition.  I collaborated with her as a junior lawyer at the organization for three years. Even though she did not graduate from law school, she has tried her best to learn complicated legal issues through her work experiences. For me, P’Noo is a strong woman who sacrifices her life for communities all day and night. She never turns her phone off because she is worried that villagers might face some urgent situations and need her help. Her schedule is always full of meetings with local communities and networks. She told me that she always feels uncomfortable denying villagers’ requirements because when they ask her, they are in severe trouble, and hope that she can solve their problems.

P’Noo strongly believes that local people (almost all are farmers) play an essential role in protecting the environment. She does not want to block all development, but she thinks that local people know their area best.  Thus, they must have the right to decide how it is developed.

Even though I left the foundation a year ago, P’Noo’s devotion and determination still inspire me to . . .

Spotlight on Earth Rights Defenders in Vietnam

There are many earth rights defenders in Vietnam who support others in the face of human rights violations and environmental issues. Some of them work in government agencies and some work in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, high-level government officials do not care about their responsibility to protect their people from harm.  The people working in NGOs make the greatest impact.

My director, Ms. Lam Thi Thu Suu, has a genuine enthusiasm for earth rights.  Ms. Suu made me recognize that human rights and environmental protection are important to social development.

When I graduated from university in 2011 I did not care much about human rights and environmental issues.  The first time I met Ms. Suu was when she accepted me as a volunteer in her organization. At the time, it was just a job. Four months later, I found that I really liked my work. Ms. Suu lit a fire under me through her boundless enthusiasm on human rights and environmental protection. She goes to the communities and talks to the women for hours on women’s rights, even when she is tired. After she goes to the communities, she continues to work with stakeholders at home and with foreign countries to call for support for the communities. Sometimes she does not have time for her husband or her two children.

Ms. Suu’s effort has been recognized by many people and organizations. Now, many people support the communities where she works.

I will do my best to help the communities get their rights. I will also get more knowledge about the environment to protect my community and environment from the impacts of development. Although there are many difficulties to achieving great success, if I make a sustained effort, I will succeed. . . .

US Attorneys with Colombian Heart: Reflections on Doe v. Chiquita

Juan Pablo in Mali

I remember Paul Hoffman  sitting outside the 11th Circuit courtroom in April, waiting for his turn to argue his case. His case is the case of four thousand Colombians victimized by the paramilitaries paid by Chiquita, the banana company. His indignation is the pain and suffering of four thousand Colombians, his voice echoes their strength.

Hoffman is a man with a great heart and sense of humor.  “You are obviously overdressed,” he told me in the lobby of a hotel in Miami, where we met one day before the arguments for Chiquita.  Later that day he would tell Rick Herz, Litigation Coordinator at ERI, “he did not receive the memo about the dress code.”  In my defense, I forgot to bring my shorts to Miami. 

Hoffman and Herz were there to defend the Colombian victims.  They wanted to make everybody understand that the massacres aided by Chiquita do “touch and concern the territory of the United States… with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application,” as the Supreme Court required in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.  

Helping them was the least I could do.  It has been absolutely inspiring to see how their idea of justice drives them in fighting this battle.  Hoffman and all the attorneys representing the Colombian victims have come to understand that this is their cause, too, even if they haven’t seen victims displaced by violence in Colombia with their own eyes, as I have, and as ERI’s lawyers have.  Truly, it was not necessary for them to witness such lack of fairness in order to understand that this is a fight in the name of justice. 

In addition to answering questions on Colombian law for Chiquita, I was also privileged to coordinate the draft of an . . .

Environmental rights as human rights in the Lower Mekong Basin

Farmland along a tributary of the Mekong River, imperiled by a nearby dam.

The way modern society has developed has led to an unfortunate state of affairs where environmental protection and social benefits are often seen as competing interests which have to be balanced against one another.  However, as the mission of EarthRights so clearly implies, in many cases environmental law and human rights law go hand in hand.  As Marissa emphatically reminded us at a recent meeting, environmental rights are human rights!

The ongoing concern surrounding the development of hydropower on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia is a perfect example of the undeniable link between human and environmental rights.  The Mekong River offers vital life support to 65 million people living in the region.  It is also home to over one thousand species and is second only to the Amazon River in terms of biodiversity.  Its rich biodiversity includes the giant catfish , which can reach up to 10(!) feet in length and the Irrawaddy Dolphin , just to name a few.

Unfortunately, corporations and governments also see it as a prime location for hydropower mega-dams.  While some might see this situation as the classic tension between social and environmental benefit, it really isn’t.  Instead, it is much more an example of the increasingly frequent struggle between human and environmental rights on one side and corporations and governments on the other.

Local and international groups including human rights and environmental NGOs have been working together to use various means in an attempt to ensure that these mega-dam projects do not go forward unless they have taken into account and properly addressed the social and environmental costs of the dams. 

One result of these efforts was a complaint to the Finnish National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD  Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.  The complaint, filed last year, was about . . .

Sympathy but no justice from the Second Circuit in Bhopal contamination case

Two weeks ago, I traveled with another ERI legal intern from Washington, DC, to New York City to watch ERI’s Rick Herz argue for justice for the residents of Bhopal, India, at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. ERI represents these plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Union Carbide for its part in creating a faulty waste disposal system that polluted the water of thousands of people. Rick was urging the panel to reverse the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

Bhopal has become famous as the site of the 1984 toxic gas leak that claimed the lives of over 5,000 Indian citizens. Almost 30 years later, the community is still plagued by toxic waste seeping into the groundwater and poisoning local water supplies. The extensive contamination is causing birth defects, neurological disorders, and increased cancer rates in the area.

From a law student’s perspective it is a rare and exciting opportunity just to be in a Second Circuit courtroom, listening to well-crafted arguments and the concerns of highly regarded judges. But it was also particularly enriching on a personal level. Human rights and environmental protection are the precise issues that brought me to law school. Getting the chance to sit in and observe the arguments in an important case concerning corporate liability for harms felt in Bhopal was an invaluable learning experience.

During the four-hour bus ride, we scrambled to put together copies of every case cited in the briefs into a binder, flagged specific pages cited with tabs, and highlighted quoted text, just in case Rick would need it during his argument. Papers, highlighters, binders, and red, green, and blue tabs were everywhere and we definitely drew a few curious stares from fellow travelers as we awkwardly negotiated the narrow space on the bus. . . .