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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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As counsel to the cigarette industry and as a Philip Morris director, Powell already had begun testing the use of activist-minded courts to create corporate rights. In one case in the late 1960s, Powell argued that any suggestion that cigarettes caused cancer and death was “not proved” and was “controversial.” Therefore, according to Powell, the Federal Communications Commission wrongly violated the First Amendment rights of cigarette corporations by refusing to require “equal time” for the corporations to respond to any announcement that discouraged cigarette smoking as a health hazard.

Even the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in the tobacco-friendly South, rejected this claim. Although Powell lost that time, he went on to win far more than he could have imagined after he got on the Supreme Court and helped change the Constitution.

Powell’s 1971 memo to the Chamber of Commerce laid out a corporate rights and a corporate power campaign. The Chamber and the largest corporations then implemented these recommendations with zeal, piles of money, patience, and an activist Supreme Court. In equating corporations with “We, the People” in our Constitution, no justice would be more of an activist than Lewis Powell after he joined the Supreme Court in 1972.

1972: Powell Gets His Chance

In January 1972, President Nixon filled two Supreme Court vacancies, appointing Powell to one seat and William Rehnquist, a conservative Republican lawyer from Phoenix, Arizona, to the other. Rehnquist never hid his conservative views, which were well known and, to some, controversial. At the same time, neither Congress nor most Americans knew of Powell’s radical corporatist views. In his Senate confirmation hearing, no one asked about his recent proposal to the Chamber of Commerce recommending the use of an “activist-minded Supreme Court” to impose those views on the nation. No one asked because neither Powell nor the Chamber of Commerce disclosed the memo during his confirmation proceedings.

Once on the Court, these two Nixon appointees followed very different paths. Justice Powell would go on to write the Court’s unprecedented decisions creating a new concept of “corporate speech” in the First Amendment. Using this new theory, the Court struck down law after law in which the states and Congress sought to balance corporate power with the public interest. With increasing assertiveness by the Supreme Court even after Powell retired in 1987, the new corporate rights theory has invalidated laws addressing the environment, tobacco and public health, food and drugs, financial regulation, and more.

Powell helped shape a new majority to serve the interest of corporations, but for years, several vigorous dissents resisted the concept of corporate rights. The most vigorous came from the conservative Justice William Rehnquist. He grounded his dissents in the fundamental proposition that our Bill of Rights sets out the rights of human beings, and corporations are not people. For years, Rehnquist maintained this principled conservative argument, warning over and over again that corporate rights have no place in our republican form of government.

Here Come the Foundations

Despite the Rehnquist dissents, Powell’s vision of an unregulated corporate political “marketplace,” where corporations are freed by activist courts from the policy judgment of the majority of people, won out. Powell, of course, could not have acted alone. He could not have moved a majority of the Court to create corporate rights if no one had listened to his advice to organize corporate political power to demand corporate rights. Listen they did — with the help of just the sort of massive corporate funding that Powell proposed.