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The Supreme Court Sold Out Our Democracy -- How to Fight the Corporate Takeover of Our Elections

Historian Thom Hartmann discusses the history of corruption that led up to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

Election 2010 is being fought on a wave of campaign dollars unleashed on the American people by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United v. FEC decision. The court, led by a majority of staunch right-wingers, struck down limits on third-party “electioneering” ads based on a tortured interpretation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar, wrote that the decision “will likely go down in history as one of the Supreme Court's most egregious exercises of judicial activism.“ Rep. Peter Fazio, D-Oregon, told the Huffington Post last week that “the Supreme Court has done a tremendous disservice to the United States of America… They have done more to undermine our democracy with their Citizens United decision than all of the Republican operatives in the world in this campaign.” DeFazio said he is “investigating articles of impeachment" against Chief Justice John Roberts for committing perjury when he promised he wouldn't be a judicial activist during his Senate confirmation hearings.

The floodgates are open, and American democracy is at risk. But the decision didn’t emerge out of thin air. Rather, it was the culmination of the development, over more than a century, of a bizarre theory of jurisprudence that holds that corporations enjoy the same Constitutional rights as human beings.

For years, it was believed the concept was enshrined in the law by the Supreme Court in 1886, but in his groundbreaking book, Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became People -- And How You Can Fight Back, historian and radio host Thom Hartmann revealed that the principle was in fact the result of what may be the greatest corporate fraud ever perpetrated on the American people.

With the first post- Citizens United election looming -- and the release of Unequal Protection in paperback -- AlterNet caught up with Hartmann to discuss how corporations bought themselves a perverse regiment of civil rights.

Joshua Holland: I'd like to start with a very brief kind of bumper-sticker explanation of ‘corporate personhood.'

Thom Hartmann: Sure. From the sixth-century English law until today there have been two types of persons under the eyes of the law. The first are natural persons, human beings, and the second are artificial persons -- corporations, churches, unions and governments. The reason why there has to be artificial persons is because you have to have some sort of status as a person to be able to own property, pay taxes, enter into contracts, and sue or be sued.

The concept goes back to the sixth century, but it's only in the last 100 years of the United States that anybody has had the weird idea that those artificial persons should be entitled to human rights under the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

JH: So BP and Goldman Sachs have the same constitutional rights that you and I enjoy?

TH: Somewhat. They have not yet claimed their Second Amendment rights.

JH: That's a good thing.

TH: But we're waiting. You got Blackwater, actually.

JH: Yes. I would think they’d be the first on that boat.

TH: The point is that through various claims and cases before the Supreme Court, corporations have explicitly claimed First Amendment free speech rights, Fourth Amendment rights of privacy, Fifth Amendment rights against taking and against self-incrimination, and 14th Amendment rights against discrimination.

JH: Now, although it's been with us for a very long time, it wasn’t until the 1980s that corporate starting breaking it out with increasing frequency. Can you give us just a couple of examples of where corporations asserted these constitutional rights?