The Corporation a "Person"


The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution declares that no person shall be deprived of property, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” By the late 19th century the Supreme Court began to interpret this amendment not as a protection for blacks, but as a protection for corporations, ruling on many occasions that a corporation was, in effect, a “person.” This they did in convincing fashion in the case of Wabash Railway v. Illinois (1886) in which the Court ruled that states could not regulate commerce, only the federal government could.  Between 1890 and 1910, of all the 14th Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court, 288 dealt with corporations and a mere 19 dealt with black citizens.


Now they have done it again.  In the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court 5-4 ruled that corporations should be treated the same as "natural persons."  Specifically, the Court noted that it was rejecting “the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not ‘natural persons’.”


In the early years of the republic, corporations were chartered by the states and under strict control and regulation.  From the early 1800s until 1886 the wealthiest business people sought to use the Federal government (especially via the courts) to reverse this situation.  After the passage of the 14th Amendment, corporate owners began to claim that their firms were “persons” with many of the rights of granted to natural persons.  In the forefront of the campaign to get the courts to rule that corporations were persons were railroad companies, arguably the most powerful corporations of the 19th century.  Four cases reached the Supreme Court in 1877 that involved railroads and their lawyers argued that the 14th Amendment protected them from states regulating the maximum rates they could charge.  Each time the Court ruled against this argument.


Then in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company [118 U.S. 394] came yet another case where it was argued that corporations should be defined as persons, before any oral arguments took place, Chief Justice Waite stated as follows: "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 the opinion that it does." The court in this case did not rule on the question of “personhood” but a clerk made note of the above quote as if it was the court’s ruling and subsequently the decision in this case was used as precedent to hold that a corporation was a "natural person."


One writer has noted that after the decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Companythe 14th Amendment, enacted to protect rights of freed slaves, was used routinely to grant corporations constitutional ‘personhood.’ Justices have since struck down hundreds of local, state and federal laws enacted to protect people from corporate harm based on this illegitimate premise. Armed with these ‘rights,’ corporations increased control over resources, jobs, commerce, politicians, even judges and the law.”


Eventually, in Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad v. Beckwith (1889) the court ruled that “a corporation is a “person’ for both due process and equal protection.”


The decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission should not be too surprising since corporations rule this country. Early in the 20th century noted philosopher and educator John Dewey observed that “government is merely the shadow cast upon society by big business.” The title of one of books by Michael Parenti is appropriately title Democracy for the Few. Greg Palast (author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy) recently commented that: “The ruling, which junks federal laws that now bar corporations from stuffing campaign coffers, will not, as progressives fear, cause an avalanche of corporate cash into politics. Sadly, that's already happened: we have been snowed under by tens of millions of dollars given through corporate PACs and ‘bundling’ of individual contributions from corporate pay-rollers.”


In 2005 Jeffrey H. Birnbaum of the Washington Post noted that the “number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 to more than 34,750.”  Thomas Frank, in his latest book The Wrecking Crew noted that many of these lobbyists have their offices literally across the street from the Capitol, at 101 Constitution Ave.


American citizens have consistently understood what Dewey, Parenti, Palast and Frank have said.  Recent polls bear this out (as noted by Paul Street):


* 71 percent of Americans think that taxes on corporations are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007), 66 percent of Americans think taxes on upper-income people are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007) and 62 percent believe corporations make too much profit (Pew Survey 2004).


* 77 percent of Americans think there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies (Pew Survey 2004), 84 percent think that big companies have too much power in Washington (Harris Poll 2007), and two-thirds think that "big business and big government work together against the people's interests" (Rasmussen Reports, 2009).


So what the Supreme Court did was to simply make it a little bit easier for corporations to run the country.  What else is new?



© 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.