Corporate Personhood

posted 1/24/10
Supreme Court on Corporate Personhood

The Roberts court on a 5/4 decision, handed corporations, many of them owned by foreign interests, a license to raid American politics, and at the same time, devalued what it means to be a human being.

The conservative activist group “Citizens United” took the Federal Election Commission to court for limiting the amount the group could contribute to a candidate. The group promoted “Hillary: the Movie,” a quasi Michael Moore type movie “exposing” Hillary Clinton. The group was prevented from showing the movie using certain funds within 30 days of the election. The Federal Election Commission held that they were violating the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. They complained all the way to the Supremes; their point is that corporations have the right to “free speech” and in the United States, money talks.

The 14th Amendment was passed in 1868; its intention was to clarify citizenship for Blacks, Native Americans and other humans. Twenty years later a court reporter summarized a Supreme Court decision to say that the court had decided not to hear whether the 14th Amendment made corporations person; it assumed it did.
Two decades after the Civil War, a war the industrialized, and capitalized, North had won, the corporation was well represented in law.

Making the assumption a corporation is a person is not the same as “hearing” the point, but Santa Clara County Vs Southern Pacific Railroad Company was later cited as evidence that corporations are persons under the 14th Amendment. Ironically, the amendment intended to free people resulted in the creation of the corporation as human.

Since that day, corporations have pushed the issue of corporate personhood to the point that corporations have many of the same rights as persons. In past cases the court has decided that corporations have a stake in free discussion. The “Roberts” court narrowly concluded that they did, and that money is speech, since money is how speech is disseminated.

There are many reasons a corporation should not be considered a “person” but the most compelling is that it is not a person, can not love or know pity, and might never die.
Justice Stevens, writing for three of four dissenting justices, said:
“A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it.”

Justice Stevens, and his fellows in dissent, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, made several points in criticism of the majority; Thomas had a hybrid response, supporting the package of conclusions generally but dissenting on some point. The majority was composed of Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Alito and Scalia and written by Kennedy.

Stevens pointed out that the majority decision had failed on at least two counts. First, there was no freedom of speech issue, it was whether certain funds could be used in campaign advertising. He stated that, further, the case by the conservative activist group could have been decided more narrowly, instead throwing all manner of laws out.

The course of the Supreme Court in modern times has been one of least involvement. They would avoid “facial” changes, meaning changes that had broad consequence for law. Most often, the court would find a law invalid only in certain circumstances. This decision is sweeping, far more than the case required, particularly in terms of campaign finance.

The majority also violated the philosophy of not over-turning previous SC decisions, reversing a 1990 Supreme Court decision. Dissenting Justice Stevens said “The majority blazes through our precedents, overruling or disavowing a body of case law…"

This is temporarily seen as a big win for corporate interests, but the backlash will likely be huge. Some in congress are talking about meaningful reform to campaign financing as well as the definition of “person” under the law.

The trend toward corporate personhood is being countered by numerous civil rights and voter’s rights groups. One is HERE

Here are excerpts from the dissent, penned by Justice Stevens:

“The basic premise underlying the Court’s ruling is its iteration, and constant reiteration, of the proposition that the First Amendment bars regulatory distinctions based on a speaker’s identity, including its “identity” as a corporation. While that glittering generality has rhetorical appeal, it is not a correct statement of the law. Nor does it tell us when a corporation may engage in electioneering that some of its shareholders oppose. It does not even resolve the specific question whether Citizens United may be required to finance some of its messages with the money in its PAC. The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.”

The entire text is found HERE.

“Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.”

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