The Fascinating History of How Corporations Became "People" -- Thanks to Corrupt Courts Working for the 1%
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In his dissent, Justice Stevens noted that it was a highly unusual move, and that the court had further ruled on a Constitutional issue that it didn’t need to consider in order to decide the case before it -- the diametric opposite of the principle of “judicial restraint.” He charged that the conservative majority had "changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law."
That's nothing new. The Citizens United decision simply advanced a bizarre legal doctrine, developed during the last 150 years, that effectively codifies the power of corporate interests.
Corporate personhood's origin in English law was reasonable enough; it was only by considering companies “persons” that they could be taken to court and sued. You can’t sue an inanimate object.
During the 19th century, however, the robber barons, aided by a few corrupt jurists deep in their pockets, took the concept to a whole new level in the United States. According to legal textbooks, the idea that corporations enjoy the same constitutional rights as you or I was codified in the 1886 decision Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. But historian Thom Hartmann dug into the original case documents and found that this crucially important legal doctrine actually originated with what may be the most significant act of corruption in history.
It occurred during a seemingly routine tax case: Santa Clara sued the Southern Pacific Railroad to pay property taxes on the land it held in the county, and the railroad claimed that because states had different rates, allowing them to tax its holdings would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The railroads had made the claim in previous cases, but the courts had never bought the argument.
In a 2005 interview with BuzzFlash's Mark Karlin, Hartmann described his surprise when he went to a Vermont courthouse to read an original copy of the verdict and found that the judges had made no mention of corporate personhood. “In fact,” he told Karlin, “the decision says, at its end, that because they could find a California state law that covered the case ‘it is not necessary to consider any other questions’ such as the constitutionality of the railroad’s claim to personhood.”
Hartmann then explained how it was that corporations actually became “people”:
In the headnote to the case—a commentary written by the clerk, which is not legally binding, it’s just a commentary to help out law students and whatnot, summarizing the case—the Court’s clerk wrote: “The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The discovery “that we’d been operating for over 100 years on an incorrect headnote” led Hartmann to look into the past of the clerk who’d written it, J. C. Bancroft Davis. He discovered that Davis had been a corrupt official who had himself previously served as the president of a railroad. Digging deeper, Hartmann then discovered that Davis had been working “in collusion with another corrupt Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Field.” The railroad companies, according to Hartmann, had promised Field that they’d sponsor his run for the White House if he assisted them in their effort to gain constitutional rights.
Hartmann noted that even after the ruling, the idea of corporate personhood remained relatively obscure until corporate lawyers dusted off the doctrine during the Reagan era and used it to help reshape the U.S. political economy.