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Banning Corporate Personhood: How Communities Are Taking the Law Back from Big Companies

Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund explains how communities can fight corporate power with a new legal weapon.

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The third option is the one that the Legal Defense Fund has been pursing and advising communities on, and it has to do with acting on the premise that you already have the right to say "no," that you already have the right to protect your community, your families, your kids, your property values, your drinking water -- that those are fundamental rights. It's a crazy thing -- in Pennsylvania we actually have it. It says it right in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 27, that we have a right to clean air, clean water, clean soil, and that the state has the responsibility to protect the resources of the state and to be the steward of those resources for all of Pennsylvania for generations to come. And then the Supreme Court of the state says things like, "However, Article 1, Declaration of Rights -- those rights are actually non-self-executing." I'm not a lawyer, if I didn't mention that, but sometimes they say silly things like that, which is to say, "These rights -- long list of rights -- they're not self-executing."

What does that mean? It means that the state has not created explicit statutory law to tell us how we're allowed to enjoy those rights. I know I'm speaking colloquially; I'm not being precise in my legal language. I engage in community organizing around these issues, and I think it's important for people to understand what it is -- what does it really mean?

And what we're being told is, the right to clean air, clean water and the rest of it -- well, that's protected by the Department of Environmental Protection. The laws and the regulations of the state through that agency -- that's how we can enjoy those rights. And then we look to see what those agencies actually do. They issue permits to industry to engage in activities that the people in our communities are told they have no authority to say "no" to -- and that's how our rights get protected.

What can we do in anticipation of New York going the way of Pennsylvania and Ohio and Maryland and West Virginia? There really are differences among the states in terms of Home Rule authority. About 46 states have some form of Home Rule at the municipal level. Some of it is statutory; some of it's constitutional; some of it is a mix.

In Pennsylvania, in 1968, they amended the state constitution to allow for municipal home rule. Well, we've got quite a few municipalities in Pennsylvania; 67 of them have decided to go Home Rule. Why so few? Because the state legislature has been very busy since 1968 adopting laws that newly preempt Home Rule authority. So, we had statutory municipalities before, and they were being preempted; and now we have Home Rule communities and their local Home Rule authority is being whittled away one after another.

How does that happen? Our experience is that industry has the ear of our legislators. And, for instance, when the DEP talks about their clients, they're talking about the industries that they're charged with assisting to engage in the activities that they permit. It's kind of an upside-down view of what an environmental agency might do.

So, by the way, is the regulatory system of most states, including New York, where when it comes to preemptive power, what they say is, "Here is the maximum amount of protection legally that a municipality will be offered -- that the members of a municipality will be offered by the state." And you would be acting beyond your authority to adopt laws that regulate that industry any more strictly and offer more protection to your community. If we had legislatures who considered the human beings in the state to be their constituents, we might see a regulatory regime that said, "Here is the minimum amount of protection every community must offer its members, and if they so decide, they can impose more strict regulations to protect the health, safety and welfare of their communities." Just the opposite is the case.