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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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Powell led a majority of the Court to accept the repeated mantra that “corporations are persons” and corporate “voices” must be free, and the sustained attacks on the people’s laws continued for the next two decades. Oil, coal, and utility corporations, tobacco corporations, chemical and pharmaceutical corporations, alcohol corporations, banking and other Wall Street corporations, and many others all successfully claimed corporate speech rights to invalidate federal, state, and local laws. As you will see in Chapter Two, corporations even succeeded in attacking the right of parents to know whether the milk they fed their children came from cows treated with Monsanto’s genetically engineered recombinant DNA bovine drug.

In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center celebrated thirty years of using judicial activism on behalf of corporations and admitted that it was “the brainchild of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell.” The brainchild, with its motto of “Business Is Our ONLY Client,” bragged about such “victories” as convincing the Supreme Court to throw out a decision by a jury of people to impose punitive damages for the unlawful conduct of Philip Morris, Inc.

The Consequences

The success of the Powell–Chamber of Commerce plan transformed American law, government, and society, with two devastating consequences for the country. First, corporations gained new political power at the expense of average citizens and voters. Corporations poured out money to lobbying and election campaigns and to help friendly politicians and hurt unfriendly politicians. With even modest reform crushed by corporate rights decisions such as Bellottiv. First National Bank of Boston — and now much more so, Citizens United — corporations could threaten “independent expenditure” campaigns against politicians who did not bend their way. Corporate money to influence legislative votes and politician behavior lost its scandalous, shameful nature. Bags of corporate cash were no longer bags of cash; they were “speech.” How could “speech” be corrupt or scandalous?

Washington and many state capitals became playgrounds for corporate lobbyists, and our elected representatives became increasingly disconnected from the will of the people. With the new, organized corporate radicalism, staggering amounts of corporate money flooded Washington and our political system. Between 1998 and 2010, for example, the Chamber of Commerce spent $739 million on lobbying. Pharmaceutical and health care corporations spent more than $2 billion on lobbying in the past twelve years. Three corporations seeking military contracts, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Lockheed, and Boeing, spent more than $400 million on lobbying. GE Corporation ($237 million), AT&T ($162 million), the pharmaceutical corporate lobby PHRMA ($195 million), ExxonMobil ($151 million), Verizon ($149 million), and many more corporations all joined the lobby- fest.25 Financial, labor, energy, environmental, health, trade, and other legislation and policy tilted in favor of corporate interests; the hurdles for advancing the public interest became much higher.

Second, the successful corporate rights campaign created a corporate trump card over public interest laws. If laws that were inconvenient to corporate business models somehow made it through the corporate lobbyist machine, corporations now had constitutional “rights” to attack the laws in the courts. It no longer mattered if the majority of people and our representatives chose laws to curb pollution, require disclosure, protect the public health, or nurture small businesses and local economies. The democratic process was no longer enough to decide the issue. After the creation of “corporate speech” rights, it was now up to federal judges to decide whether the law served an “important” state interest and was not too “burdensome.”

The Lost Promise of Earth Day

On that far-off Earth Day in 1970, Americans reclaimed the water, air, land, and forests that belong to all of us and to our descendants. We reclaimed the promise of government of the people, where people and our representatives would weigh, debate, and decide the balance of private and public, corporate and human. Since that spring day in 1970, we have pushed resources and the ecological systems on which life depends to the breaking point. Even as the oil, gas, and coal corporations mimic the strategy of the cigarette corporations to create a fraudulent “controversy” and “open question” about the global warming “hoax,” we have ripped past the point of no return on climate pollution.