Earth Island Joins Move to Dissolve Unocal

Article excerpt

On September 10, attorneys for the International Law Project for Human, Economic and Environmental Defense (HEED) filed a petition with California's Attorney General to start proceedings to revoke the charter of the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal), a company some critics have called "one of the worst corporate wrongdoers of our time."

The petition accuses Unocal of "violating local, state, federal and international law, acting unethically, contravening public policy, usurping political power, and causing great harm to the people of California and the world."

"Charter revocation is a particularly apt legal mechanism to deal with corporate repeat offenders," according to HEED, part of the National Lawyers' Guild. HEED believes that if California's "three strikes" laws (jail mandatory after three felony convictions) were applied to corporations, "Unocal, a recidivist polluter, would have long since been out of business."

HEED's lead attorney in the case, Loyola Law School Professor Robert W. Benson, believes that the petition can "help change the political discourse about the power of corporations in our society."

Thirty human rights, social justice, environmental groups and individuals have joined as petitioners on this historic challenge. The petitioners include Amazon Watch, Global Exchange, the Free Burma Coalition, Project Underground, Rainforest Action Network, the National Organization for Women and Earth Island Institute.

In the early decades of our nation, corporations were viewed with suspicion by states and articles of incorporation were intended to grant corporation powers only for narrow purposes and for a set period of time.

Statutes permitting the revocation of corporate charters still exist in every US state. "This petition," Benson observes, "erases [the] historical amnesia."

According to the HEED petition, "courts have always seen the corporations as `the mere creature of law.' [and]...have warned that it is crucial to maintain state sovereignty over corporations as a check on the slavery that would result from the aggregations of capital in the hands of a few individuals and corporations."

In his 1910 inaugural speech as Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson declared: "A corporation exists, not of natural right, but only by license of law, and the law...is responsible for what it creates. If law is at liberty to adjust the general conditions of society itself, it is at liberty to control these great instrumentalities which nowadays, in so large part, determine the character of society."

California's Code of Civil Procedure (Section 803) and Corporations Code (Section 1801) require that the Attorney General, acting alone, when "directed to do so by the governor," or "upon a complaint of a private party," must initiate revocation proceedings when there is "reason to believe" that any corporation has violated its charter or the law.

Under California case law, a single violation by a corporation is sufficient to trigger revocation and any Attorney General who refuses to act can be ordered to act by the courts. Unfortunately, Benson says, many of California's attorneys general have become "soft" on corporate crime. The last time the revocation statute was invoked was in 1976 when Attorney General Evelle Younger, a conservative Republican, moved to revoke the charter of a private water company that was accused of delivering contaminated drinking water to the public. …