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Corporations are citizens?

The Supreme Court's 2010 decision to allow corporations First Amendment rights.

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Corporations are citizens?

  • Feb 1, 2010
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The Supreme Court's recent decision to permit corporations a voice in elections makes a mockery of the First Amendment, the Constitution and the intentions of the Founding Fathers. The whole point of "We The People" was always to bring the power back to the individual, away from the monarchy and ruling classes, and this ruling flies in the face of not just common sense but the very fundamentals of this country.

I can imagine that this was argued as if somehow corporations were being restricted in their ability to voice an opinion, which is a grotesque interpretation of the truth. If anything, corporations have a wildly disproportionate voice thanks to deep pockets for advertising directly to individuals, and vast resources to buy elected officials through lobbying. This decision tilts the tables unacceptably towards the interests of big business, eroding the ability of individuals without such resources to be heard in any way whatsoever.

Despite various legal and accounting rules that act as if corporations are legal persons, businesses are not people. Period. Extending critical parts of the Constitution that are designed to protect people is like defending free speech for my toaster, and makes little if any sense at all. If a corporation is convicted of murder, do we send the CEO to jail? What about the corporation's right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - how does that work? If a corporation is a person, can we make it pay federal taxes, or can I become a corporation instead and avoid them? There are enough questions that arise out of this nonsensical decision to have the courts tied up for years.

Ultimately, of course, this has nothing to do with the Constitution, free speech or anything else that matters to an American citizen. Actually, it's just about allowing big business to shoehorn even more money into Washington to lobby for their interests, which much of the time are in direct conflict with the average citizen's agenda. The fact that this has been achieved in such a circuitous way is truly remarkable, and despite all the popularist noises from Congress about how they "may have to legislate", I would guess this change is here to stay. Essentially, the political advertising by corporations in the run-up to the 2012 election will be so deafening that the candidate backed by the most corporate dollars will win, and the implications are almost unthinkable.

Just for fun, and in case you're still not convinced that energy, healthcare and banking are the puppet-masters of Congress, here are some high-profile companies and their lobbying expenditures in 2008-9 even before they were granted First Amendment rights by the Supreme Court (courtesy of opensecrets.org):

2008 TotalC 2009 Total  2009 Total U.S. Chamber of Commerce $91,725,000 $144,456,000 57.5% Exxon Mobil $29,000,000 $27,430,000 -5.4% PhRMA $20,220,000 $26,150,520 29.3% Pfizer Inc. $12,180,000 $21,930,000 80.0% AARP $27,900,000 $21,010,000 -24.7% Chevron Corp. $12,994,000 $20,815,000 60.2% National Assn. of Realtors $17,340,000 $19,497,000 12.4% ConocoPhillips $8,459,053 $18,069,858 113.6% Verizon Communications $18,020,000 $17,820,000 -1.1% Boeing Co. $17,540,000 $16,850,000 -3.9% BP $10,450,000 $15,990,000 53.0% Northrop Grumman $20,743,252 $15,180,000 -26.8% AT&T Inc $15,076,675 $14,729,673 -2.3% Southern Co. $14,080,000 $13,610,000 -3.3% Altria Group $13,840,000 $12,770,000 -7.7% Amgen Inc. $10,150,000 $12,440,000 22.6% Eli Lilly & Co. $12,485,000 $11,215,000 -10.2% AHIP $7,540,000 $8,850,000 17.4% General Motors $13,351,000 $8,680,000 -35.0% Wells Fargo $2,265,740 $2,880,000 27.1% Goldman Sachs $3,310,000 $2,830,000 -14.5% SEIU $2,471,678 $2,670,276 8.0%

(Bold indicates this was paid for by the taxpayers' bailout money.)

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December 14, 2010
Two quick points:

1)  The Supreme Court held only that independent expenditures and communications were protected.  Coordinating speech or offering it to the candidate still was unprotected according to the line they drew.

2)  The issue was whether natural persons (you or I) could form a corporation for the purpose of pooling our money and communicating our political position to the world (that essentially describes Citizens United as a corporation), and if so, what the Constitutional rule protecting that should be.

The actual opinion and the Amicus briefs were worth reading.
December 16, 2010
Excellent additions to this review, and much appreciated. You're one of my new favorite Lunchers!
February 01, 2010
First of all, the Supreme Court doesn't (and shouldn't) make decisions based on what they think would be good politically, but rather, what is legal. They are constrained by decisions made long ago which do treat corporations as persons. This is nothing new, and was not the focus of this particular case. Check out these two posts at this blog for a radical lawyer's take on how we got to this point.

Second, you conclude with this statement: "Essentially, the political advertising by corporations in the run-up to the 2012 election will be so deafening that the candidate backed by the most corporate dollars will win, and the implications are almost unthinkable."

I hate to break it to you, but the candidate backed by the most corporate dollars already won, and already consistently wins, even with McCain-Feingold in place. So what will the difference be?

Finally, corporations may not be citizens, but they do need some kind of rights in order to exist, and some legal mechanism for groups of people needs to exist within a state of even the tiniest complexity. As Greenwald wrote, if we got rid of corporate rights, then the US government could go raiding ACLU offices without a warrant. Is that really what you want?

I'm as opposed to corporate dominance of our society as anyone, but this ruling isn't anywhere near the disaster it's been made out to be. It's representative of an effect, and nothing like a cause.
February 02, 2010
Interesting post and great points. No doubt it's a difficult problem, but - like you - I don't want to hand any more power to corporations. I'm personally in favor of banning all corporate cash for elections, including lobbying, but I'm sure they have rights protecting this. Now if the ACLU is now a legal person, it gets even more interesting. :-)
December 14, 2010
It's worth noting that the Supreme Court's opinion more or less tracked the ACLU's amicus brief point for point.
February 01, 2010
I'm not convinced that healthcare etc are the puppetmasters of Congress, but you did bring up some interesting points, although you said them jest. Perhaps we SHOULD literally consider the CEOs as the brains of these new persons and literally hold them responsible for the evil that their bodies do! Put the tobacco industry on trial for murder and while we're at let's go after those who manufacture weapons that have no place in the home but still seem to find their way there--like AK47s. Let's see how long they want to be regarded as persons when they are held as responsible as the average man on the street is for the crimes they commit. Does anyone know the number of a good prosecutor?
February 01, 2010
At the moment it's puppet-practice - once they get their teeth into the new advertising, you may as well be voting for Exxon or Blue Cross! It's an interesting question, though - I'm all for treating them as people if they can get all the downsides too. Presumably, we'd have to build prisons just for CEOs, complete with $5000 suits, golf courses and the Martha Stewart rehabilitation wing. CEO might just disappear as a title altogether and corporations might become 'headless'. Spooky.
February 01, 2010
Oh no! No more Club Fed! Hard time just like real people. They want the benefits then they have to take the downside too, and if that means sharing a cell with their 350 lb. new best friend Bubba then so be it!
February 01, 2010
I am sure there a lot of people that think that we as people are being taken advantage of by the big people
February 01, 2010
I hope so. And it would be nice to think that if the voting power has moved from the ballot to the wallet, we should still be able to shut down the likes of massive banks, Wal-Mart, oil companies and the rest by simply shopping somewhere else. If only people who move those dollars around, our voices would still be heard.
More Corporations are citizens? reviews
review by . December 14, 2010
I actually read the Supreme Court's opinions here (the opinion of the court, the concurrences, and the partial dissents).  I also read most of the Amicus briefs.  There is a lot of misinformation about this case.      Citizens United v. FEC addressed the question of independent corporate speech in the context of elections.  At issue was a portion of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act which banned "electioneering communications" by any corporation …
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James Beswick ()
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Lunch.com's "token Brit".
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