Sometimes the hardest thing to explain is the most obvious.
We all know that corporations are not really people, so it's odd that this is even being debated. Nonetheless, the legal equation that "corporations are people" lies at the heart of the controversy created by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC., and so its worth your time and trouble.
The Citizens United decision did not create the idea of corporate personhood, nor did it establish the maxim that money equals speech. These two ideas were already established in constitutional law by previous cases.
Rather, what the Supreme Court did was put these two ideas together. Following an inevitable but pernicious logic already in motion, the court's majority found that the First Amendment's protection of free speech must apply to all persons, both "natural" and "fictional." Hence, they reasoned, Congress cannot prevent unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, candidate selection and public policy.
According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, four out of five people oppose the Citizens United ruling. Is it any wonder? Billions of unreported and unaccountable dollars spent on political influence cannot help but alter, if not outright corrupt, our democracy.
Reacting to the decision, and to the increased flow of "super PAC" and corporate dollars into elections, people across the country have called for a ban on corporate personhood, as well as for a rejection of the idea that money equals speech. But the root of the problem lies elsewhere.
Consistency is a good thing, to be sure; but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Corporations may be treated as persons for certain legal purposes, but that does not mean that they must or ought to be treated as persons in every other way. Most importantly, the Bill of Rights was written to define and defend the rights of human beings, not corporations.
In his eloquent dissenting statement Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "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."
The Declaration of Independence declares as self-evident the truth that people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Corporations, on the other hand, are created by acts of government and they ought to be endowed with only those rights that we, their creators, decide to give.
In the American political system, we believe that government derives its just powers from consent of the governed. We the people are sovereign and come ahead of government. The Supreme Court's mistake was to elevate the fictional corporate person to the same sovereign status as real, constitutionally protected persons, placing a subordinate creation of the state above the state itself - thus diluting and undermining the sovereignty of real persons. This is the root of the problem.
To restore the American people's place and overturn Citizens United will require going beyond the Supreme Court. It will require a constitutional amendment.
The solution is not to abolish corporations. The solution is simply to put them in their proper place, below the people and below the state. Corporations should still exist and have rights, but those rights should not be constitutional rights.
The solution is close at hand, if we can convince our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to act wisely. They need to begin the process to amend the Constitution to say that the Bill of Rights is for real persons, not fictional persons.
The first week of June has been named Resolutions Week by a broad coalition of organizations nationwide. Dozens of cities, counties and state legislatures across America have already passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Supporters hope to see hundreds more resolutions passed in June.
Last Monday, councilmember Seth Fleetwood and I introduced such a resolution to the Bellingham City Council, which the council may vote on in the next two weeks.
What do you say?
Michael Lilliquist serves on the Bellingham City Council.