Campaign finance hearing may have ramifications for corporate personhood

2009corpperson-top35According to Fortune Magazine, the largest American company in 2009 was Exxon Mobil Its total revenues were $442.85 billion. Second was Wal-Mart, with total revenues of $405.61 billion. Rounding out the top 10 were Chevron ($263.16 billion), ConocoPhillips ($230.76 billion), General Electric ($183.21 billion), General Motors ($148.98 billion), Ford Motor ($146.28 billion), AT&T ($124.03 billion), Hewlett-Packard ($118.36 billion), and Valero Energy ($118.30 billion).

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the 182 nations of the world had a combined GDP of nearly $60.9 trillion (or $60,900 billion) in 2008. But comparing the GDP data to the Fortune 500 data produces the table at right (click for the top 182 nations and corporations each, in order). If Exxon Mobil were a country, it would rank 25th in the world, right between Norway and Austria. Wal-Mart would rank 27th, sandwiched between Austria and Taiwan. Chevron would rank 28th, ConocoPhillips 42nd, GE 49th, GM 59th, Ford 60th, and AT&T, H-P, and Valero would be ranked 64-66 respectively.

In fact, all of the Fortune 500 would rank above the 40 smallest national economies in the world. And the smallest company on Fortune’s list of the 1000 largest U.S. companies would be larger than the national economies of 28 entire countries. Exxon Mobil’s revenue is greater than the combined GDP of the 78 smallest countries (out of a total of 182) in the world.

And yet the Supreme Court took the unusual step of ordering a hearing during the court’s recess in order to hear legal arguments over whether corporate money could be spent to influence elections and whether the current bans on most such money in politics were constitutional. And indications are that the conservative majority will likely rule to overturn nearly 20 years of precedent and rule that it is constitutional for corporate money to be spent directly to influence local, state, and federal elections.

According to the Constitutional Accountability Center, the four liberal justices were the ones quoting from the U.S. Constitution to support their questions and arguments:

Justice Ginsburg reminded Olson that it is living persons, not corporations, who are “endowed by [their] Creator with unalienable rights.” Justice Sotomayor, too, picked up on this theme, emphasizing how the Supreme Court had rewritten the Constitution to create the fiction that corporations are persons entitled to the same basic rights as human beings. If we are looking to constitutional first principles to topple precedents, she asked, why shouldn’t we also look at the cases that invented corporate constitutional personhood and “imbued a creature of State law with human characteristics”?

Several of the court’s conservatives are supposed to be Originalists, judges who believe that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed at it’s writing (except for amendments, of course) and has not changed since then. Granting state creations the rights guaranteed to flesh and blood people when the Constitution doesn’t mention state creations is hypocrisy of the first order. It’s also an example of the very judicial activism than the Senate Republicans who voted against confirming Justice Sotomayor feared she would bring to the court. Perhaps the most activist judge on the Supreme Court today, defined by being the most willing to overrule Congress, is Antonin Scalia.

At present, corporate profits may not be spent to directly influence elections. This has historically been the case because corporations can live effectively forever and amass financial resources that no individual person could equal, and because legislators and courts have been concerned about corporate influence corrupting the political process. In essence, these are many of the same arguments that federal law uses to ban foreign nationals and governments from donating money to political campaigns. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, there are no foreign governments suing for free speech rights to influence elections.

The problem twofold – corporations are presently considered people, and money is considered speech. Corporations were defined legally as people for the purposes of limiting personal liability in the event of a business failure. But one of the results is that corporations have claimed the rights guaranteed to real people in the Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment right to free speech. And because the Supreme Court declared, in Buckley v. Valeo, that spending money equals exercising the right to free speech, corporations are now claiming that their money should be given identical rights to the money of individual citizens.

There are at least two direct solutions to this problem. The first would be to overturn Buckley v. Valeo. This would make money no longer equal to speech and could be an even more significant change in legal precedent than overturning 100 years of campaign limits on corporate donations to candidates. It would also require the conservatives on the court to go against their known personal ideologies.

The second is to redefine corporations so that they are not considered individual people for all situations. This would certainly require federal legislation and would probably require state legislation as well. It would also require that the economic and political powers at the state and federal levels voluntarily relinquish the power that corporate money (via PACs today, possibly via direct contributions in a few months) brings them.

Neither is particularly likely given the composition of the Supreme Court and the major influence of money in politics today.

Eventually, though, if the laws are overturned, enough companies will corrupt enough politicians with direct donations that they’ll overreach, and the public reaction will be swift and unstoppable. And when that happens, Exxon Mobil’s money and Wal-Mart’s money and Chevron’s money will be as untouchable as money from Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Both of which have smaller economies than either Exxon Mobil or Wal-Mart.

12 replies »

  1. It has already been indisputable proven that the Supreme Court has never in a case found corporations to have the same rights as humans. An incorrect brief has caused this error for over one century.

    Now it is time to right that wrong and reduce “corporate personhood” to second class status beneath the rights of WE THE PEOPLE!

    Any and all justices who do not rule in favor of WE THE PEOPLE should be immediately impeached and removed from the Supreme Court.

  2. Corporations are not people. People can vote at the ballot box, corporations can’t.’

    Anyways, if the government changes the rules midstream, there will be a greater dislocation and flight of capital than has ever been seen. The government can respond by seizing assets, like they did with the the GM and Chrysler bondholders, but that will be just another nail in the coffin. Capital tends to migrate to where it can earn the highest return, as it should be,


  3. If I am in a formal debate and I am using words, and my opponent is handing out $100 bills to every one watching, it’s not really a fair debate. “Corporate personhood” is American right wing irrationality at its’ most perverse.

  4. And corporations gave more money to Obama last cycle than they did McCain. Corporations are a good thing…without them, you wouldn’t be writing your opinions on the internet, in fact you would need a horse to travel, and would have to make your own clothes after you made your fabric on the loom. Corporations provide jobs, products, and markets.


    • I don’t know about you, Jeff, but I was writing my opinions on the Internet without a whole lot of trouble well before it got overrun by corporations. The Internet was invented and developed by the Big Evil Gummint, if you recall. Sure, corps have helped us develop plenty of useful applications of that technology (like WordPress!), but when we pretend that all good issues from the sacred corp, we demonstrate how very ideologically clouded our vision is.

  5. But who were the subcontractors in the development of Arapanet? Business, universities, and the government.


    • So what you’re saying, if I understand you, Jeff, is that our greatest contemporary technology (arguably, at the very least) is the result of a broad partnership between business, government and the academic complex?

      See, that didn’t hurt a bit, did it?

  6. I think we are mixing up the concept of corporation with business in general. Business do provide jobs and products and are, in marco, fantastic. But business can thrive without corporate “personhood”. The corporation concept was originally formed to protect individuals within public institutions (like libraries) from full financial liability in the case of tort action.

    Our countries solution to this was to create a legal concept of corporate person-hood, which, to be frank, is beyond bizarre. Legislation could have been introduced to limit the personal liability of business owners without these constitutional gymnastics.

    We should avoid allowing corporations to participate in our political process because it would essentially represent a disproportionate increase in the participation of a specific class of people. Understand that the real people that work at these corporations can, and should, participate fully in government. To have corporations participating as proxies causes an over-representation in popularity of the owner’s component viewpoints and ultimately distorts public policy in favor of their interests. This then becomes a closed loop cycle. As this class of people amass more influence over public policy, remaining barriers to even greater influence can be removed, ad infinitum. I believe that we are seeing the progression in this cycle now.

    We don’t need corporate person-hood for businesses to do all the things they do well, and their participation in the political process reduces the relative power of citizens to shape their own government, and in turn, their ways of life.

  7. Bur none of this angst over corporations influence will matter as we will have the most open, transparent government ever…..Obama said so, and I believe his every word.