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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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Corporations and corporate executives funded a wave of new “legal foundations” in the 1970s. These legal foundations were intended to drive into every court and public body in the land the same radical message, repeated over and over again, until the bizarre began to sound normal: corporations are persons with constitutional rights against which the laws of the people must fall.

Huge corporations, including Powell’s Philip Morris, invested millions of dollars in the Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center and other legal foundations to bring litigation demanding new corporate rights. In rapid succession, corporations and supporters funded the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Mid-Atlantic Legal Foundation, the Mid-America Legal Foundation, the Great Plains Legal Foundation (Landmark Legal Foundation), the Washington Legal Foundation, the Northeastern Legal Foundation, the New England Legal Foundation, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the Capital Legal Center, the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, and many others.

These foundations began filing brief after brief challenging state and federal laws across the country, pounding away at the themes of corporations as “persons,” “speakers” and holders of constitutional rights. Reading their briefs, one might think that the most powerful, richest corporations in the history of the world were some beleaguered minority fighting to overcome oppression. The foundations and the corporate lawyers argued that “corporations are persons” with the “liberty secured to all persons.” They used new phrases like “corporate speech,” the “rights of corporate speakers,” and “the corporate character of the speaker.” They demanded, as if to end an unjust silence, “the right of corporations to be heard” and “the rights of corporations to speak out.”

This corporate campaign sought to redefine the very role of corporations in American society. The message was insistent: We should no longer think of corporations as useful but potentially insidious industrial economic tools. We should no longer be concerned that corporations might leverage massive economic power into massive political power or trample the public interest for the profit of the few. Instead, we should think of corporations as pillars of liberty, institutions that Americans can trust. They would protect our freedom for us. They would stand up to “bad” government for us.

A 1977 brief of the Chamber of Commerce, for example, argued that the Court should strike down a state law that limited corporate political spending in citizens’ referendum elections because corporations help maintain our freedoms: “Business’s social role is to provide the people a valuable service which helps maintain their freedoms. ... The statute at issue prevents the modern corporation from fulfilling a major social obligation. ... ”

By 1978, the millions of dollars invested in the radical corporate rights campaign began to pay off. The first major victory for the corporate rights advocates came in 1978, with a corporate attack on a Massachusetts law in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti. Several international corporations — including Gillette, the Bank of Boston, and Digital Equipment Corporation — filed a lawsuit after the people of Massachusetts banned corporate political spending intended to influence a citizen referendum. Justice Lewis Powell cast the deciding vote and wrote the 5–4 decision wiping off the books the people’s law intended to keep corporate money out of citizen ballot questions. For the first time in American history, corporations had successfully claimed “speech” rights to attack laws regulating corporate money in our elections.

With that success, an emboldened corporate rights campaign next attacked energy and environmental laws. In the 1982 case of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation v. Public Service Corporation of New York, utility corporations and the array of corporate legal foundations all argued that a New York law prohibiting utility corporations from promoting energy consumption violated the corporations’ rights of free speech. The corporations won again, and again Justice Powell wrote the decision for the activist Supreme Court that he had imagined in his 1971 Chamber of Commerce memo. The corporate interest in promoting energy consumption for corporate profit trumped the people’s interest in energy conservation. Over a period of six years, Justice Powell wrote four key corporate rights decisions for the Supreme Court. These unprecedented cases transformed the people’s First Amendment speech freedom into a corporate right to challenge public oversight and corporate regulation.