Compass: People reign supreme, not corporations

By SHARMAN HALEYMay 18, 2013 

I write this on the 127th 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 was the very first published decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which it was announced that corporations (as opposed to natural persons) have constitutional rights under the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This case led to a long line of cases that further expanded the constitutional rights of corporations, leading up to the recent 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. The authorities of government are created of, by and for the people who create them, and are thus subordinate to "natural" rights established in the Constitution.

Corporations didn't exist at the time the Constitution was framed, and the framers had no concept of or intent to include corporations in their definitions of the rights of "people" (nor were blacks and women included). Corporations are creatures of statutory law, duly enacted by our democratically elected lawmakers. 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 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.

Sharman Haley is a retired professor of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a member of Anchorage Move to Amend.

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