Seeking to Curb Corporate Influence on Politics

March 6, 2013
Thomas Fitzgerald

HARRISBURG, PA - They can't breathe. They don't bleed. They don't digest food.

But, as Mitt Romney famously blurted, corporations are people - at least under the law. In the Citizens United decision in 2010, for instance, the Supreme Court recognized that corporations have the constitutional right of free speech, something most people assumed belonged to actual carbon-based life-forms.

The court struck down limits on corporate election spending, ruling them the same as banning speech. It helped unleash an estimated $933 million in spending by outside groups and wealthy people in the 2012 presidential race.

And that was why David Cobb was preaching in a steamy and too-small hotel meeting room at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit here Friday night, selling the salvation of a constitutional amendment that would restrict rights to "natural persons only," giving government the power to regulate corporations, and declaring that campaign expenditures are not speech.

U.S. called a 'plutocracy'

"Corporations are ruling us, as surely as masters once ruled slaves, as surely as kings once ruled subjects," said Cobb, a former Texas trial lawyer and 2004 Green Party presidential nominee. "We don't have a functioning democracy in this country. The word we should be using is plutocracy. . . . It really chaps my hide."

Cobb is one of the leaders of Move to Amend, a sprawling coalition of lefty groups worried about the corrosive influence of money in politics and intent on upending Citizens United. More than that, Cobb said, the idea of legal personhood gives corporations disproportionate power over the political system.

The notion of corporate personhood began in common law in the Middle Ages, and in the United States was cemented during the Gilded Age. Corporations, considered people for the purposes of exercising some rights, such as access to the courts, began arguing that they were people in other ways, too, entitled to equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment, which had been enacted to ensure the civil rights of former slaves.

Railroads used the amendment to argue that California could not charge them higher property tax rates than individuals. In 1886, an appeals court, upheld by the Supreme Court, sided with the railroads in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.

'Legal doctrine'

When the current court decided Citizens United, the majority opinion did not mention corporate personhood. It didn't have to, said law professor Bradley A. Smith, because "it's a deeply rooted legal doctrine."

Practicality drives the idea, allowing people to own property together, for instance. "If you didn't have it, you couldn't sue a corporation as an individual person; you'd have to serve papers on every shareholder," said Smith, an expert on campaign finance law who teaches at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.

In addition, he said, "we don't lose our individual rights when we incorporate for the purposes of governing ourselves." It's not as though corporations enjoy all individual constitutional rights: they can't invoke the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, vote, or run for office.

"It's a worthy cause, but I'm not sure the money in politics is our biggest problem as progressives right now," Marc Stier, a longtime activist from Philadelphia, said at the summit. "It's motivating and mobilizing people."

He might have added: It takes a lot of mobilizing to amend the Constitution. Nonetheless, Move to Amend is gathering force, with more than 272,000 supporters and 175 local affiliates, including one in Pittsburgh. Activists have persuaded 500 city and county governments to pass resolutions of support, including in Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre.

The initiative would curb unions' ability to finance campaigns, too.

Support crosses political divisions. True-blue New Jersey's Legislature backed a resolution, as did super-red Montana voters in a referendum - the same day they voted for Romney.

"We're true believers," Cobb said in an interview. "We're Elmer Gantry. We're not going to compromise."

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