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What do we mean by corporate personhood – and why is this not a good thing?
In 1819, the Supreme Court, in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, recognized corporations as having the same rights as natural persons for the purpose of entering into contracts and enforcing those contracts. Later, in 1886, the Court’s Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad decision (118 U.S. 394 ) recognized corporations as persons for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment (states must provide equal protection under the law to all people within their jurisdiction).
Those two rulings have thus provided the century-old underpinnings for a number of subsequent decisions equating corporations with real people, two of the most recent being Buckley v. Valeo, which equates campaign finance with free speech – a true precedent in its own right – followed by last year’s 5-4 Citizens United (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission) ruling, yanking all restrictions on corporate (and union) campaign monies and allowing unlimited dollars to flow directly to support or defeat candidates, just not to the campaigns themselves.
The 2010 elections demonstrated starkly the fallout from all of these rulings on the make-up of Congress, especially the reversal of the Democratic House majority to Republicans, and of several governorships and state legislative bodies. The best examples of the latter are Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Florida, and the passage of truly onerous, anti-worker, anti-teacher legislation. Corporate personhood gave life and power to the Koch brothers’ wealth as the primary financing tool of both the Tea Party entities and specific electoral contests in those states.
Presidents and early political figures – including Lincoln, Cleveland , Eisenhower  and the original Progressive, Wisconsin’s Robert LaFollette [in 1897] – plus legal scholars – have condemned the role of corporations in American political life and in every aspect our economy, many of those luminaries saying that uncontrolled corporations represent serious threats to our nation’s political and economic stability – and still they persist through their economic and political control, mergers, acquisitions, let alone their refusal to heed employee and consumer rights, to push for more.
Now comes an overt movement to reverse all of those rulings by means of a Constitutional amendment and calling itself Move to Amend. The amendment would add language that says Congress and the states can regulate campaign contributions and expenditures, rather than directly address the legal finding that election law denied corporations their right to free speech. Minnesota has its own chapter or branch and we’ll hear more about all of this as Move to Amend becomes one of the siren songs of the Occupy phenomenon.
David Cobb is National Projects Director of Democracy Unlimited. He is a lawyer, political activist, and engaged citizen. He has sued corporate polluters, lobbied elected officials, run for political office himself, and has been arrested for non-violent civil disobedience. In 2002 David ran for Attorney General of Texas, pledging to use the office to revoke the charters of corporations that repeatedly violate health, safety and environmental laws. He did not win the office, but the Green Party of Texas grew dramatically during his campaign from four local chapters to twenty-six. In 2004, he ran for President of the United States on the Green Party ticket and successfully campaigned for the Ohio recount.
TTT’s ANDY DRISCOLL and MICHELLE ALIMORADI engage local and national advocates on the role of corporations and Move to Amend – after we highlight the practical pitfalls of Ranked Choice Voting in St. Paul tomorrow with our Resident Expert.
DAVID COBB – former Presidential Candidate for the US Green Party, National Projects Director of Democracy Unlimited and official spokesperson for MOVE to AMEND
NATHAN JOHN NESS – Minnesota Organizer, MOVE to AMEND