Constitutional amendment needed to end ‘corporate personhood’

Mary Boland
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
What do we really want?

“I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”

– Occupy Wall Street sign

The sign refers, of course, to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, made in 2010, holding that corporations have a First Amendment free speech right to spend as much money as they want to influence elections. This is tantamount to saying corporations are people since the Constitution applies to people.

This bizarre decision overturned all precedent and flew in the face of the clear intention of our Constitution’s framers to keep corporations out of politics. It also overturned a century of congressional law and the laws of 22 states prohibiting corporate spending in elections.

It is common knowledge that corporations are artificial entities created and regulated by the states for economic purposes only. And until the Civil War, corporations were subject to strict control both by their shareholders and chartering legislatures.

During the first half of the 19th century, corporations began to try to use the courts and state legislatures to increase their powers, with some success. Nevertheless, in Dodge vs. Woolsey, 1855, the Supreme Court affirmed that the U.S. Constitution confers no inalienable right on a corporation, ruling that the people of the states have not “released their power over the artificial bodies which originate under the legislation of their representatives.”

So President Obama was far from alone among legal scholars when he forcefully stated his disagreement with the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

Even on the court itself, Justice Stevens wrote a passionate dissenting opinion which was joined by Justices Ginsberg, Breyer and Sotomayor.

To emphasize his unhappiness with the decision, Justice Stevens took the rare step of reading main parts of his opinion from the bench. He argued that the majority ruling by Republican appointees “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”

He also said the majority ruled on a question not brought before it by the litigants and thus “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”

Furthermore, he wrote that the majority opinion is “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

“It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense,” he added. “While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

And, of course, the ensuing flood of corporate money into politics was largely responsible for the election of far right candidates to Congress in 2010. And it is their intransigence that has brought our government to a total standstill.

Various front groups formed by tea party funders Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, among others, used largely undisclosed corporate donations to flood the airwaves with attack ads aimed at progressive Democrats as well as support for the likes of Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker.

This flood of corporate money supporting candidates who follow the desires of the corporate bigwigs and super rich is shaping up to be much, much worse in 2012. And we haven’t even discussed regular ongoing corporate lobbying.

Various measures have been introduced in Congress and state legislatures to ameliorate the situation. These include requiring corporations to get shareholder approval for political or “charitable” contributions, and/or setting up public financing of elections. But it is difficult to pass anything in the face of the corporate and far right dominance of government.

In any event, the only way to solve the problem once and for all is to pass a constitutional amendment stating that corporations are not persons and have no rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have introduced a bill in favor of such an amendment, as has U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. And polls have shown that more than 80 percent of Democrats and Independents and 68 percent of Republicans favor such an amendment.

To join the fight, visit And if you can do nothing else, donate as much money as you can afford. Our children’s future depends on it.

– “What Do We Really Want?” appears on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Mary Boland is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother, and a longtime resident of Carbondale. Follow her on twitter@grannyboland.

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