JOHN HUMINS: Undoing a Myth: Corporations are People and have Constitutional Rights in Elections


Undoing a Myth: Corporations are People and have Constitutional Rights in Elections:


Americans are led to believe that corporations have legal standing drawn directly from the law of the land.  Contrary to common belief, corporations are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.  That’s right, the word “corporation” is not found in the original document which our Founding Fathers put forth in 1787 to guide the future of the newly created United States.

Corporations existed back then. They, however, were largely holdovers from British colonial days and were viewed skeptically by many of the Founding Fathers.  American corporations obtained their charters from the states, not from the Federal government. Their early legal rights facilitated their commercial activities and provided them legal protections.

Federal court decisions in the post-Civil War era, however, enhanced the legal standing of corporations – often to the detriment of laborers and common citizens. No decision had a greater impact than the misconstrued tax case, Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad of 1886, which curiously gave corporations the status as ‘persons’ before the law.  The Supreme Court had not ruled on the elevated status of personhood to corporations, even though some had hoped to grant such a status based upon the 14th Amendment. This amendment, like the 13th and 15th amendments, was meant to grant and protect the freedoms of former slaves. The justices, however, saw no direct connection between the 14th amendment and the corporations, but they did offer an “opinion” that corporations should be considered as “persons” before the law. The court reporter, in turn, inserted into the heading for the case’s published record the “opinion” that corporations should have status as persons in the eyes of the law.

Coupled with a “laissez faire” policy of the Federal government, corporations parlayed their new legal status into monopolistic domination of the American economy by the late 1800s.  It is not a coincident that during the era of the “Robber Barons,” corporations gained legal status as a person, even though the legal basis in the Santa Clara opinion was flimsy, at best.  Corporate abuses and monopolistic activities created a huge backlash, which energized the Progressive reform movement of the early 20th Century.  President Theodore Roosevelt and Progressive leaders from both political parties passed legislation attempting to corral the worst abuses of corporations.  Among them was legislation in 1907 which limited corporate influence in Federal elections.

Recently, however, the US Supreme Court, in a highly contentious decision, legitimized the right of corporations to advocate their political views in the electoral process.  That decision, based upon the freedom of speech proviso in the First Amendment, which when combined with the ability of corporations to dominate the electoral process with its money and lobbyists, makes for an unhealthy concentration of influence and power, which many fear will dilute, if not corrupt, the most important civil right of American citizens.

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Quite curiously, the US Supreme Court jurist with an “originalist” view of the Constitution voted with the majority to grant enhanced free speech rights to corporations, despite the absence of mentioning corporations in the Constitution. Moreover, the court’s decision dismissed over one hundred years of legislation and legal precedent banning corporations from using their power to dominate the electoral process.  So much for ‘judicial restraint’ on the part of other conservative jurists, whose votes represented one of the most radical departures from legal precedent and common sense.  Ideology, however, prevailed and the power of corporations was grossly enhanced.

What is most curious, the Supreme Court in its January 2010 decision determined – in a controversial  5-4 vote – that corporations, along with unions, have first amendment rights to advocate publicly for their preferred candidates and policies.  Equating corporations to citizens misconstrues their constitutional standing. Corporations do not have responsibility to promote the general welfare.  They are solely responsible to their shareholders.  And corporate leaders have constantly reminded the American people of that arrangement. In fact, shareholders in the age of the global economy may or may not be citizens of the US. By giving corporations first Amendment rights to be involved in the electoral process, we are giving shareholders, who may not be citizens, rights equal to, if not greater than those of real citizens. In addition, foreign multinational corporations would have similar free speech rights.  Is this what the Supreme Court intended? Does the US Constitution provide legal standing to such corporate power? The answer is plain and simple: NO!

It is an oxymoron to think of a corporation as a person.  Corporations are legal artifices; a person is a “natural” being who has been bestowed constitutional rights and responsibilities.  Corporations have many citizens in its employ who have said constitutional rights. To grant corporations rights as persons means that the persons who constitute the corporations now have double rights and representation.

To address this legal anomaly, and to nullify the radical decision by the US Supreme Court, it is proposed that the American people consider and vote for the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution. It is recommended that this amendment  include the following provisions in order to blunt the power of corporations, to remove the rule of money from Federal elections and to return electoral prominence to the citizens of the United States.

The 28th Amendment to the US Constitution: Ending Outside Influences in the Federal Electoral Process

-Since only citizens have the right to vote, then only registered voters may participate in the Federal electoral process; the electoral process includes primaries, the election itself, and run-offs.

-Recognizing that voters may only vote in the state and congressional district of their primary residence, each voter may only make monetary contributions to a US senatorial candidate in the state of their residence state and to a congressional candidate in the election for the representative to the US House of Representatives in their home congressional district; no citizen may contribute monetary to candidates in Federal elections in any of the other 49 states, other than their own; moreover, no entities, such as corporations, unions, political action committees, lobbyists, advocacy groups, bundlers  may make monetary donations to any duly elected Federal political officials, before or after their election;

-To assure that each citizen will have equal status in the electoral process, each citizen, who is eligible to vote, may contribute no more than $1,000 (one thousand dollars) in a presidential election, the same amount to a US Senate candidate in the state of their primary residence, and the same amount to a candidate for the US House of Representative in the congressional  district of their primary residence; no person other than eligible voters may contribute money to any candidate for President or for the US Senate and House of Representatives; and the amount contributed in the presidential, US senatorial and US congressional  elections by said eligible voters  shall be tax deductible;

-Whereas, the President of the US is constitutionally limited to two terms (or eight years) of service, US Senators will be limited to two terms (or twelve years) of service, and US Congressman/woman will be limited to six terms (or 12 years) of service;

-Since there will be a need to enforce said provisions of this amendment, Congress shall make laws to enforce the terms of this amendment.

-And it is hoped that states will make similar restrictions to voting rights, political contributions and term limits in state elections.

Respectively, John Humins   3/30/10

Dr. John Humins is a US Army Vietnam era veteran with a PhD in History from Michigan State University.

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