Portland councilors want city to support overturning of ‘corporate personhood’ ruling

Posted Jan. 13, 2012, at 1:59 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 14, 2012, at 9:40 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The city of Portland could soon join an effort to reject so-called corporate personhood, the controversial extension of constitutional free speech rights to allow unfettered political spending by corporations.

City Councilor David Marshall is proposing a resolution that, if adopted by the larger council, would urge Maine’s congressional delegation and other federal lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment to throw out corporate personhood.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled by a 5-4 vote that limiting corporate or union political contributions equates to an infringement of the groups’ First Amendment right to free speech. The politically polarizing decision, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, helped trigger the proliferation of Super PACS — political action groups that can raise and expend unlimited funds in support of candidates or issues often without disclosing donors until after voting takes place.

“We have codified in case law something that is, on its face, ridiculous,” City Councilor John Anton told the Bangor Daily News. “The implications of it on campaign finance are distressing to me. There’s been a struggle throughout history between popular movements and the influence exerted through wealth. The corporate personhood fiction exacerbates the influence of wealth on government, and that is something I think should be checked.”

In his resolution, Marshall argues that the extension of constitutional rights to corporations ultimately results in the infringement of the constitutional rights of individual citizens. Other cities that have approved similar resolutions include Los Angeles and New York City.

“The great wealth of large corporations allows them to wield coercive force of law to overpower the votes of human beings and communities, thus denying We the People’s exercise of our constitutional rights,” the resolution states, in part. “The judicial and political bestowal of civil and political rights upon corporations usurps basic human and constitutional rights guaranteed to human persons.”

Marshall said corporations, unlike individual citizens, aren’t limited in their expression by geographic locations or life span, whereas citizens’ free speech eventually expires when they do, or is restricted to a single place at a time. Corporations are international and potentially everlasting, he said.

“People need to change the Constitution,” Marshall said. “There’s overwhelming public sentiment going against the Supreme Court in this decision. I’ve had constituents come to me and say, ‘This issue is very important and we want to have a debate in public about it.’”

Co-sponsoring the resolution are Mayor Michael Brennan and fellow councilors Anton and Kevin Donoghue. It needs five votes to pass. The nine-member council will consider the resolution at its Wednesday night meeting.

Members of the Maine League of Young Voters and OccupyMaine, groups that have long rallied against corporate personhood, are expected to turn out at the meeting in support of the resolution.

But not everyone on the council plans to vote in favor of it.

“This is not the first time we’ve had political issues put on [the agenda] in the form of a resolution, and it’s totally inappopriate,” Councilor Cheryl Leeman said. “We’re elected to conduct city business, and there are other ways for people to reach out and make their opinions known about federal and state issues. Anytime you deviate from a city-oriented council agenda, of course it’s going to take time away from those issues. Is this going to improve city services? Is this going to affect our city budget? No.”

Donoghue disagreed that taking up political issues at the City Hall level is inappropriate, saying the council does so sparingly. Anton argued that the council “is perfectly able to continue its day-to-day work” while also taking up the resolution.

“It’s about a legitimizing a public sentiment,” Donoghue said. “Naturally the forum at which change can be made is not the City Council. I think we try to use discretion when choosing when it’s appropriate to take up federal issues on the local level. Although federal issues have very real impacts on us at the local level, I realize the council can’t be weighing in on every federal issue. We’re not Congress, and we do have a lot of other things to do. But to me, this is one of the issues that’s timely and significant enough to rise to our agenda.”

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