'Only human beings have constitutional rights;' Q&A with Move to Amend's David Cobb

August 14, 2015
Jake Thomas

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark Citizens United ruling that drastically altered the country’s electoral landscape, allowing corporations to give unlimited sums to political campaigns. It also gave rise to “super PACs,” which became an essential part of the 2012 and now the 2016 presidential races. 

David Cobb, a Texas lawyer and activist who ran on the Green Party line for president in 2004, says the only way to get the unprecedented about of money out of politics is a constitutional amendment that spells out out that money is not speech and corporations aren’t people. 

Cobb, a national spokesperson for the Move to Amend campaign, will be speaking in Spokane on Tuesday. He spoke with the Inlander about how the time is ripe for change, how Donald Trump’s rise signals positive developments for American politics, where Bernie Sanders falls short and why he’s optimistic about his seemingly quixotic goal. 

Inlander: Why is it a problem that corporations have constitutional rights?
Cobb: Let’s start with the recognition that constitutional rights are tremendously important. A constitutional right is a barrier, a shield, where we say government can come no further. The political process can’t infringe on an individual right to express themselves, how they choose to worship or assemble. Our human rights are premised on the inherent worth of the individual and that collective society cannot infringe on our liberty. Let me be really clear, Move to Amend is a staunch defender of constitutional rights. 

A corporation is an artificial entity; it is created under the corporate code because it exists for a limited reason. That’s why it’s a limited liability corporation. You are providing a legal mechanism for their owners to not be responsible for what they do. That’s a privilege, not a right, and that privilege is only given under appropriate circumstances. The founders limited corporations to a certain length of time and what they could and couldn’t do. They said a corporation had to be beneficial to the public.

When a corporation claims constitutional rights, they are going to court and claiming that some local, state or federal law is violating the corporation’s constitutional rights. Our whole point is that only human beings have constitutional rights. Artificial entities created under law only have privilege not inherent rights.

What’s a concrete example of this being a problem?
There was a time in this country when OSHA was able to go onto private property to do a surprise inspection to make sure that worker safety or environmental laws were being followed. Now, let’s be very clear, I’m not saying that the laws are good or bad, but the enforcement of the law required them to go on the property. But corporate lawyers argued that the 4th Amendment applies to them and they can no longer do surprise inspections. That's just one of many examples. 

It used to be the case that literally it was a felony for corporations to use any corporate money to attempt to influence an election. It was literally a felony because the idea of protecting the electoral process was that important.

The underlying laws are made through the political process. Liberals and conservatives will have real disagreements over that and that’s how it should be. We have elections and elect representatives. But when the court turns a political question into a matter of constitutional law, they just turned "We The People" into participants, into mere spectators, where the ruling elite is telling us what to do. That’s why liberals, moderates, conservatives and radicals are rallying around this. 

You describe yourself as nonpartisan. Have Republicans or conservative-leaning individuals or organizations signed on to Move to Amend?
Oh, yes. At the petitioning level we have lots of folks who cross ideologies. We say everyone is welcome here as long as you agree that money is not speech, disclose political contributions and artificial entities don’t have constitutional rights.

So what conservative-leaning individuals or organizations have signed on?
I would have to get you in touch with some people locally. I’m with the national organization. I could get you in touch with them. I’m not trying to be coy. I just don’t know. 

Amending the constitution is a really tall order. It requires three-quarters of the states. It hasn’t been done in decades. Why do you think it can be done now?
Well, because it’s been done 27 times. What’s interesting is that, historically, changes are usually made every 20 to 30 years, which means that we're due. It usually happens with a mass movement of people who are really upset with cultural legal doctrines, like Jim Crow or women being unable to vote or slavery being the law of the land. There is a cultural phenomenon where people are losing confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.

May I suggest that the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party and the rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party represents two maverick insurgent campaigns that are being driven by dissatisfaction with the big money process that people aren’t actually representing them. 

How does Donald Trump represent this?
Because he is not a typical Republican politician. I believe Donald Trump represents a maverick insurgent campaign that says we don’t trust the Republican party leadership over what they do.

Is his rise over really over the issue of financing campaigns?
It’s deeper than that. But there are cultural shifts, there is a political realignment that is underway that people are missing. Consider this, Black Lives Matter is the current most visible manifestation of the movement. Let’s take two other movements, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, and may I suggest that both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are driven by an acknowledgement that Wall Street has taken over our government. The Tea Party movement erupted over the bailout. That was the impetus. That was the spark of the Tea Party.

People are so tuned out. How do you explain to people why this should matter to them? 
Do you think corporations have too much power? Do you think there is too much money in elections? I could go in a pool hall, a bowling alley, a barber shop and find support across the board. There is disgust in the amount of money in elections and the idea that a small ruling elite are dictating policy. Conservatives and liberals have different proposals, but we don’t even have the authority and agency as the American people to address it. 

Are there any candidates running for president that have some good ideas on how to solve this problem?
I think that lots of candidates have proposed good ideas. I’ll be very clear. For me, none of the candidates of the major parties have proposed a constitutional amendment to abolish the doctrine of money is speech, so that’s the demand that this movement is making.

What about Bernie Sanders?
Bernie has said great things about money in elections, and the need to overturn Citizens United. But he hasn’t taken a position on corporate constitutional rights and we are hoping that he and others will do so.

Sanders says he won’t set up a super PAC. Won’t he be outgunned?
No. The only thing that can defeat organized money is organized people. He got 29,000 people out in August well before the election. Who is the most popular musician right now? Can they can’t get 29,000 people? I say that the reason he refuses to set this up is the reason people are flocking to him. The corporate media is working overtime not to talk about him, but now he is leading in the polls in New Hampshire. 

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