The Bill of (Corporate) Rights

A conversation elsewhere in the blogosphere put a bee in my bonnet about corporate personhood, so I did some research for my own edification, and present it here for yours:

The Bill of Rights (the collective name for the first ten amendments to the Constitution, proposed just six months after the Constitution took effect) was the result of tremendous efforts to further codify and protect the rights of human beings. It supported the premise of the Constitution that the people are the root of government power and authority. This helped to make our nation and its system of government a role model for the entire world.

The Constitution does not mention corporations. The framers well understood the potential for such a large entity to assume power and subdue democracy; in the zero-sum game of politics, the more power corporations wield, the less individuals have.

But corporate lawyers (serving as both attorneys and judges – the Supreme Court was generously stocked with former railroad industry lawyers, the pre-eminent business of the era) succeeded in subverting the Bill of Rights in 1886 by establishing the doctrine of “corporate personhood” — the absurd notion that corporations deserve the legal status and protections created for people.  This happened at a time when the full rights of actual people such as women and minorities had yet to be acknowledged.

Corporate “persons” have many qualities that go far beyond those of any human being. They have infinite life spans. They can reside simultaneously in many countries. They can’t be imprisoned for committing crimes. These and other extraordinary qualities, combined with constitutional protections intended for actual persons, have enabled corporations to acquire enormous wealth and political power that is used by a very few to rule over many.

Corporate personhood has been enhanced by significant efforts over subsequent decades, from the 1971 Powell Memorandum (written by soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, former counsel to the Tobacco Institute, instrumental in covering up the known lethal effects of their product and preventing their customers from holding tobacco companies legally responsible) – which foreshadowed if not influenced 40 years of corporate propagandists such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute – to the corporate-friendly policies of President Reagan.

One of the strongest rebukes to the influence of corporations on the American political process was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, popularly known as the McCain-Feingold bill, which addressed two key issues.  The first was “soft money” contributions, funds which come from organizations and groups rather than political campaigns and parties. Prior to the passage of McCain-Feingold, soft money could be used in unlimited amounts to support political campaigns, with minimal disclosure and no government oversight.  The bill also forced campaigns and organizations to stand behind their political advertisements so that voters could better understand the source of each ad and judge it accordingly. 

But in 2010, a right-leaning Supreme Court struck down key parts of McCain-Feingold, ruling that free-speech rights permit corporations and other groups to spend freely on political campaigns.  Speaking for the dissenters, Justice Stevens wrote that this rationale was “profoundly misguided. In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it.”

Corporations want to have their cake, and eat it, too – the economic advantages of corporations and the social freedoms of individuals. We (we the people, as the Constitution begins) should stand up and make them choose one or the other.


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