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The Real History of 'Corporate Personhood': Meet the Man to Blame for Corporations Having More Rights Than You

The real history of today's excessive corporate power starts with a tobacco lawyer appointed to the Supreme Court.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt of Jeffrey Clement's  Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It.) Click here to order a copy.

In 1971, Lewis Powell, a mild-mannered, courtly, and shrewd corporate lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, soon to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, wrote a memorandum to his client, the United States Chamber of Commerce. He outlined a critique and a plan that changed America. 

Lewis Powell, like the Citizens United dissenter Justice John Paul Stevens, was a decorated World War II veteran who returned to his hometown to build a most respected corporate law practice. By all accounts, Powell was a gentleman — reserved, polite, and gracious — and a distinguished lawyer and public servant. Commentators and law professors cite Powell’s “qualities of temperament and character” and his “modest” and “restrained” approach to judging. At his funeral in 1998, Sandra Day O’Connor, who had joined the Supreme Court in 1987, said, “For those who seek a model of human kindness, decency, exemplary behavior, and integrity, there will never be a better man.” Even the rare critic will cite Lewis Powell’s decency and kindness. 

Much about these accounts must be true, but none tells the whole story of Lewis Powell. All of them, and even the principal Powell biography, omit the details of how he used his gifts to advance a radical corporate agenda. It is impossible to square this corporatist part of Powell’s life and legacy with any conclusion of “modest” or “restrained” judging.

Powell titled his 1971 memo to the Chamber of Commerce “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” He explained, “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” In response, corporations must organize and fund a drive to achieve political power through “united action.” Powell emphasized the need for a sustained, multiyear corporate campaign to use an “activist-minded Supreme Court” to shape “social, economic and political change” to the advantage of corporations.

Powell continued:

But independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.

The roots of Citizens United lie in Powell’s 1971 strategy to use “activist” Supreme Court judges to create corporate rights. “Under our constitutional system,” Powell told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.”

Powell’s call for a corporate rights campaign should not be misunderstood as a “conservative” or “moderate” reaction to the excesses of “liberals” or “big government.” Rather, to understand the perspective of Powell and his allies is to understand the difference between a conservative and a corporatist.

 

Powell and the Tobacco Corporations Show the Way

By the time of his 1971 memorandum, Lewis Powell was a director of more than a dozen international corporations, including Philip Morris Inc., a global manufacturer and seller of cigarettes. Powell joined Philip Morris as a director in 1964, when the United States surgeon general released the most devastating and comprehensive report to date about the grave dangers of smoking. He remained a director of the cigarette company until his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1971. Powell also advised the Tobacco Institute, the cigarette lobby that finally was exposed and stripped of its corporate charter in the 1990s after decades of using phony science and false statements to create a fraudulent “debate” about smoking and health.