Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Supreme Identification of Corporations and Persons

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Supreme Identification of Corporations and Persons

Article excerpt

A news item that has generated a great deal of internet and media buzz is the January 21, 2010, Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (130 S. Ct. 876) to allow unlimited corporate funding of federal campaigns. My friend and colleague Paul Levinson, who is a vigorous defender of the First Amendment--indeed, a First Amendment literalist cut from the same cloth as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas--has argued that the ruling was correct and beneficial. (1) But, while I don't share Paul's position on the First Amendment, that particular issue does not concern me here. Nor do I wish to go into the corrupting potential of unrestricted corporate spending on political campaigns, as did former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, when she spoke about the potential for undue influence on the judiciary (on the judiciary mind you, beyond officials elected to the legislative and executive branches of federal, state, and local governments). (2) Now, don't get me wrong, these are all very important matters, and all have been the subject of serious discussion, and ultimately these are the issues that matter in this case.

And yet, it seems that the lion's share of the attention, at least as far as I can ascertain, has centered around the fact that the ruling involved the legal decision to grant corporations the legal status of persons. This was a nineteenth-century decision, traced back to the Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company 118 U.S. 394 (1886). According to the rat haus reality press Web site, which provides a page devoted to the case, it was the result of a clerical error or unauthorized addition. (3) Here is what they provide by way of preamble to the actual text of the decision:

  This is the text of the 1886 Supreme Court decision granting
  corporations the same rights as living persons under the Fourteenth
  Amendment to the Constitution. Quoting from David Korten's The
  Post-Corporate World, Life after Capitalism (pp. 185-6):
  In 1886, ... in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific
  Railroad Company, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a private
  corporation is a person and entitled to the legal rights and
  protections the Constitutions affords to any person. Because the
  Constitution makes no mention of corporations, it is a fairly clear
  case of the Court's taking it upon itself to rewrite the
  Constitution.
  Far more remarkable, however, is that the doctrine of corporate
  personhood, which subsequently became a cornerstone of corporate law,
  was introduced into this 1886 decision without argument. According to
  the official case record, Supreme Court Justice Morrison Remick Waite
  simply pronounced before the beginning of arguement in the case of
  Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company that
  The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the
  provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which
  forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the
  equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are
  all of opinion that it does.
  The court reporter duly entered into the summary record of the
  Court's findings that
  The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the
  clause in section 1 of the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution of
  the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within
  its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
  Thus it was that a two-sentence assertion by a single judge elevated
  corporations to the status of persons under the law, prepared the way
  for the rise of global corporate rule, and thereby changed the course
  of history.
  The doctrine of corporate personhood creates an interesting legal
  contradiction. The corporation is owned by its shareholders and is
  therefore their property. If it is also a legal person, then it is a
  person owned by others and thus exists in a condition of slavery--a
  status explicitly forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment to the
  Constitution. … 
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