Move to Amend

Putting corporations in their place



What: MoveToAmend / I-1329 Rally
When: 6:30pm Thurs., May 8
Where: Whatcom Community College Heiner Theater
Info: http://www.wamend.org

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the U.S. Constitution was amended to clarify that people could not be property. No one thought to clarify that the opposite was true, that property could not also be people; yet for 150 years that concept has been expanded upon, even hijacked, imbuing corporations with the powers and rights once considered bestowed only to the children of a divine Creator.

Of course, the very idea of a corporation is to create a fictional “person” that can be recognized by law and exist in perpetuity. Writing in the 1700s, the British jurist William Blackstone explained that “it has been found necessary, when it is for the advantage of the public” to “constitute artificial persons, who may maintain a perpetual succession, and enjoy a kind of legal immortality. These artificial persons are called ... corporations.”

Centuries of court rulings have expanded upon this, a shorthand way of saying that a corporation has certain legal rights—the rights to own property and enter into contracts. A corporation has the right to sue in court. Given identity, a corporation is therefore responsible for its actions, a handy construction that indemnifies shareholders. Yet we also know, for example, that corporations may be bought and sold as property, a condition expressly forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment. Common sense suggests they cannot worship. So they’re not people in that sense. While the courts have long recognized that corporations may assert certain constitutional rights, corporations had never been accorded all the rights that individuals have, and have not been considered part of the political community or granted rights of political participation.

All that changed in 2010. This shorthand, this easy metaphor of personhood, was calcified in a divisive U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outright declared these fictional entities have rights equal to those of biological creatures. Prior to that, you’d hardly find a court anywhere that would casually assert a company could not be distinguished in any way from a human being. The literalist majority further declared that money could not be distinguished in any way from speech.

In an eloquent dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens recognized that “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

His opinion was in the minority. And since 2010, things have moved quickly.

Through their right of free speech corporations have captured our legislatures and regulatory agencies. They have used the key to the courts that the Fourteenth Amendment provides them to invalidate legislation that might have slipped through their control of the legislative process. Recently, corporations have argued they have religious beliefs and have sought the protections of the court to defend these.

Concerns about the excesses of “corporate personhood” cut across the political spectrum, with polls routinely finding large, bipartisan majorities that favor legislation that would clarify and reserve to natural persons those rights we consider self-evident and divinely inspired. Corporations, created by the frailties of human action, would thus be empowered through limited human laws.

Much of that interest has coalesced around Move to Amend, an effort at state and national levels to introduce a constitutional amendment that would clarity that corporations do not have access to constitutional rights, and that their powers are instead defined by statute.

It ain’t easy to amend the Constitution, however; it requires a petition by a majority of state legislatures and the support of both houses of Congress. State by state, legislature by legislature, the job is getting done.

In June 2012, Bellingham City Council supported such a resolution, calling upon the state Legislature to join the petition to so amend the Constitution. Other communities around the state have joined Bellingham, culminating in a signature drive to place Initiative 1329 on the November ballot. I-1329 would “urge Washington’s congressional delegation to propose amendments to clarify that constitutional rights, including rights to free speech, apply only to natural persons and not to corporations.”

While framed specifically to limit corporations’ access to our political system, the amendment would more broadly serve to define corporations by statute than by legal fiction. “Shorthand” would be replaced by long form definition of corporations and their rights under the law.

“Most of us work for corporations of one sort or the other, and if we did away with them most of our economy and business sector would be annihilated. That’s not our goal,” City Council member Michael Lilliquist explained. Lilliquist helped introduce the Bellingham resolution and supports the statewide initiative. “The amendment would not do away with corporations, but it would put them in their place. This is not an attack on the whole idea of corporations.”

“We need to clarify three important ideas the Supreme Court got wrong, so we are going to have to spell it out for them in the Constitution,” Kim Jordan explained to Skagit Valley Community Radio (KSVR). Jordan is field manager for the I-1329 signature campaign in northwest Washington. “First, that the rights that are described and protected by the Constitution are the rights of us, real human beings, the citizens of this democracy.

“The second idea,” she said, “is that we believe out democracy was founded on the principle that every citizen should have equal voice in our government, and that those with more money, more resources, should not also have more voice just because they have more money.

“Third, in order for us to make good decisions during elections, to be able to evaluate campaign messages, we have to know who has given to political organizations making these claims. We have to know how much they gave. Otherwise, we cannot make informed decisions during an election,” she said of campaign finance transparency.

“This initiative is about those three ideas, basically.”

Initiative 1329 petitions are being circulated in many public places through June, including the Bellingham Farmers Market.

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