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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.

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And so I read that, and I went back to Paul, the librarian, and I said "I'm not finding in this case what I thought I'd find. I'm baffled." And he said, "Well, did you read the headnote? Maybe that will give you a clue where to find it." You know, as if I'd overlooked something. So I said, "What's a headnote?" And he said, "Well, a headnote is basically Cliff notes -- you know, cheat sheets for lawyers to understand what a case is about without having to read the whole case." They're written by the Clerk of the Court. And so we went back and he found the headnote in the book, and I read the headnote. And there, a couple of paragraphs into the headnote, was this language where the author of the headnote, the Clerk of the Court, said he was quoting the Chief Justice of the Court, saying that corporations are persons and entitled to rights under the 14th Amendment.

So I take my 75 cents, or whatever it was, and my copies of the book, and we very carefully copied it on the copy machine there and Paul put it back on the shelf. Then I went around the corner to an old friend who was a lawyer in Montpelier, Jim Deville, and I laid out my copies on his table. And I showed him the language toward the end of the decision. I said, "Okay, here's the argument, here's the argument, here's the argument, here's the language at the end of the decision." And he goes, "Wow! That's not what we learned in law school!"

And so I went back to the headnote, and I highlighted that sentence in the headnote, and I said, "Well, this is probably what you learned in law school, right?" And he goes, "Holy shit!" And I said, "What do you think?" And he said, "Well, this is why they tell you in law school: don't cut corners and just read the headnotes."

Because occasionally the headnotes are wrong! He said in this case, not only was the headnote wrong, it actually contradicted the decision! And I asked him whether it had any legal status. And he said, "No, there was a 1909 Supreme Court decision that explicitly ruled that headnotes have no legal status."

JH: Now the Clerk ... let's get back to the Clerk just briefly.

TH: Sure.

JH: So this is JC Bancroft Davis.

TH: That's correct.

JH: Tell me a little bit about what you found out about him when you dug into his story?

TH: Well, that was pretty hard to find. Because to the best of my knowledge nobody had ever done anything about him, or looked into him, other than Davis himself -- he had published a number of books. He was quite the dandy. And he was the son of a very wealthy family. His father was the governor of Massachusetts. He had been one of the original incorporators of the New York and Newburgh Railroad, and so he was a railroad guy.

JH: Okay, so basically we're seeing that a lot of what we have taken for granted as legal corporate power, is in a sense a result of what may be the greatest fraud in history.

TH: That's right. And so when I started digging into this, not only did I find out that Davis was questionable-- kind of a dicey character -- but that this was one of a series of cases, tax cases, that all originated in the 9th Circuit in California, with Steven J. Field, and got kicked up to the Supreme Court, in which every single one of them argued that the 14th Amendment gave corporations personhood.