Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that corporate entities are “persons,” entitled to the constitutional rights originally intended solely for human beings. On Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights held its fourth annual Democracy Day public hearing, created by the 2013 ballot initiative that called for a U.S. constitutional amendment stating, “Corporations are not people and money is not speech.”
With efforts underway to put a similar Move to Amend issue on the University Heights ballot, we decided to take a look at some Ohio history to see how corporations have influenced the governance of cities like ours. It turns out tension between corporate interests and the public good has been a feature of civic life in Ohio for a long time.
Ohio’s first Constitution, dated 1802, was sent to Congress that year and signed by President Jefferson, making ours the 17th state to join the Union. It vested almost total power in the legislature; the governor was a figurehead lacking veto power, and the General Assembly appointed state and county judges. Corporations could only be created one at a time, by petitioning the legislature, and were subject to strict rules:
- Limited duration of charter
- Limits on the amount of land ownership
- Limits on the amount of capitalization or owners’ total investment
- The state confined charters to a specific purpose, and reserved the right to revoke them
It was clear: corporations were legal creations. Legislators (acting for the people) granted corporate entities specific privileges, but not rights. Ohio’s economy boomed; by 1820, the only states producing a greater volume of manufactured goods were New York and Pennsylvania.
Contrast this with our current situation: 200 years later, Ohio’s economy has languished for decades, corporations extract profits from more and more services formerly under public sector control, and huge campaign contributions rule our electoral process, particularly at state and federal levels. What happened?
You can guess. With almost total power vested in legislators, business owners set about influencing members of the General Assembly to reduce state control over corporations. This was accomplished gradually, through the introduction and passage of “special” legislation. There was pushback, but greased palms ultimately prevailed, bringing the inevitable problems and abuses. In reaction, 73 percent of Ohioans voted to call a constitutional convention in 1850–51.
The resulting constitution granted such democratic reforms as direct election of the governor and other statewide officials, along with judges. All future amendments had to be voter-approved, and voters could call for a new constitutional convention every 20 years.
Although amended several times, most notably in 1912, this is substantially the state constitution we have today.
By 1910, Ohioans were sick of the corporate abuses of the Robber Baron era, and 91 percent voted to hold another constitutional convention, convened in January 1912. Rather than create an entirely new document, delegates proposed 41 amendments to the 1851 constitution. Voters passed 33 of those, including enabling the state to regulate working conditions in factories; mandating an eight-hour day for public works employees; creating workers’ compensation; and regulating the use of natural resources. Also passed were the rights to initiative petition, referendum, municipal home rule, and direct primary elections.
At the convention, orator William Jennings Bryan captured the impulse behind many of those amendments, proclaiming: "A corporation has no rights except those given to it by law. It can exercise no power except that conferred upon it by the people through legislation, and the people should be as free to withhold as to give, public interest and not private advantage being the end in view."
Bryan was responding in part to precedents being set by the U.S. Supreme Court granting U.S. constitutional “rights” to corporate “persons.”
Sadly, for the past 100 years, Ohio citizens’ groups, unions, and organizations representing farmers, consumers, environmentalists, public schools and human rights advocates have all been excluded from participation in corporate code revisions, which have been the purview of the Ohio Bar Association’s Committee on Corporations. As we reported last month, since 1973 the corporate-led American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has chimed in as well, aggressively providing model legislation leading to many Ohio laws that serve corporate interests, regardless of the public good.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights and has lived here as an adult for over 30 years. Contact them at heightsdemocracy [at] gmail.com.