The origins of corporate "Constitutional Rights"

May 10 is the 136th anniversary of the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad Corp., 118 U.S. 394 (1886). This decision of the U.S. Supreme Court was purported to state that corporations (as opposed to natural persons) have constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment. The court did not actually decide this; the court reporter—a former railroad attorney—misrepresented the substance of the decision when he wrote the published headnotes.

The case nevertheless led to a long line of cases that further expanded the Constitutional rights of corporations, leading up to the 2010 case of Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, in which the court held that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.

The rights enshrined in the Constitution derive from the framers’ concept of the natural and inalienable rights of man. Such rights are foundational, prior to and superior to the authorities of government.

Corporations as we understand them today didn’t exist at the time the Constitution was framed. The framers, who had recently fought against the royally-chartered British East India Company (remember the Boston Tea Party?) surely had no intent to include corporations in their definitions of the rights of “people”. Unlike human people, corporations are creatures of statutory law, or artificial “persons”. The scope of corporate powers, authorities, privileges and obligations derive from statute and must remain subordinate to the authorities of the governing bodies that created them.

While it is entirely appropriate for courts to extend common law to address the scope of corporate privileges and obligations and define proper relations under the law between corporations, people and governments, it is not appropriate for them to invoke constitutional rights as the basis for their reasoning. Constitutional rights upset the proper hierarchical balance of power between corporations, governments and the people who reign supreme.

We the people can overturn the ruling of the five-justice majority by enacting a U.S. Constitutional Amendment clarifying that only human beings are entitled to constitutional rights. Further, the amendment should clarify that money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.

If we succeed in passing such an amendment, the next step would be to convene a process to write a model statute that would translate the body of common law regarding corporate standing, rights, obligations and privileges into duly deliberated statutory law. The nuts and bolts of the process can be worked on, but it is up to the people to demand that it happen.

Beverly Churchill is a member of Alaska Move to Amend, whose mission includes educating Alaskans on constitutional issues regarding personhood and money as a form of free speech.

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