Taking steps to eliminate corporate personhood

Posted Feb. 10, 2010, at 7:12 p.m.

If you ask someone on the street whether a corporation is a person, most would laugh and say, “No, of course not!” But on Jan. 21, a 5-4 majority of unelected Supreme Court justices both expanded the free speech rights of corporations under the First Amendment to spend unlimited money for or against candidates in elections and further entrenched the controversial legal doctrine of “corporate personhood” as the law of the land.

Corporations are artificial entities created by people through charters for specific economic purposes granted by states and subject to state and federal laws. Throughout the 19th century, corporations unsuccessfully attempted through the Supreme Court to get out from under government regulation and accountability to the people. Then, finally, in 1886, in a case about taxes, the court asserted without explanation that the 14th Amendment that had been ratified in 1868 to guarantee equal protection and citizenship rights to all persons born or naturalized in the United States was expanded to include corporations. Corporations got rights and protection under the Constitution at a time when all women, all Native Americans and most African-American men had no right to vote.

Almost a century later, in 1976, the “corporate person” found its voice when the Supreme Court ruled that corporate money equaled speech under the First Amendment. Money began to flow into political campaigns. In response, state legislatures and Congress moved to enact laws to regulate corporate money in politics. But now this recent Supreme Court opinion has overturned these laws.

If this case were about campaign finance or free speech, it would probably not affect Maine’s state elections, because we have always allowed corporations to donate to campaigns, and they have not directly done that to a significant extent. It could affect congressional campaigns, because the big national corporations have more interest in those. For example, they may choose to target Rep. Mike Michaud, who is a strong leader in Congress for fair trade, which is anathema to our large corporations.

However, the case is not truly about campaign finance or free speech. As Jeffrey Clements, a lawyer, points out in “Beyond Citizens United v. FEC: Re-Examining Corporate Rights,” since the 1970s, corporations have aggressively used the First Amendment to strike down state and federal laws from “those concerning clean air and fair elections; to environmental protection and energy; to tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals and health care; to consumer protection, lottery and gambling; to race relations and much more.”

Once corporations became “people,” their lawyers began to get more “rights” for them. In 1893, corporations were granted “due process” under the 5th Amendment; in 1906, they got 4th Amendment search and seizure protections; in 1922 they got the “takings” clause of the 5th Amendment in which a regulatory law is deemed a “takings.” A fundamental doctrine of all free trade agreements allows multinational corporations to sue a national government for federal or state regulations that affect or “take” their future profits. In all of these areas, Maine is as affected as every other state.

In anticipation of this ruling, a broad and deep coalition experienced with this issue formed the Campaign to Legalize Democracy with a call to amend the Constitution. One hour after the Supreme Court opinion was released, the campaign launched the “Move to Amend” Web site calling for people to support an amendment to firmly establish that money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights. Other campaigns are focused solely on denying or limiting corporations’ First Amendment rights and limiting money in politics. These are only half measures.

A constitutional amendment is needed to deny corporations personhood and thereby strip corporations of all constitutional rights conferred on them piecemeal by the Supreme Court over the decades. More than 50,000 people have already signed the petition for amendment. Please join this movement to take back our democracy by going to www.movetoamend.org and signing the petition.

Matt Clarke of Rockland is a member of the Alliance for Democracy and its local Maine chapter. He is offering a course (Capitalism’s Catastrophes: Causes and Cures) at Coastal Senior College in Camden, which will begin on March 24 with a free session on these Supreme Court cases and personhood. He can be reached at mattnmar@gwi.net.

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