Ultimate Civics

Who Rules? The People vs. Corporate Power

Earth Island Reports

The United States Supreme Court issues rulings every Tuesday except during its summer recess. Most decisions do not have any central bearing on our lives or culture. But some are landmark decisions that dramatically alter the fundamental rules of America’s governing structure – the US Constitution – for better or worse.

The Evolution of Corporate Personhood
1789 US Constitution Ratified
Legalizes and institutionalizes slavery
1803 Marbury v. Madison
Establishes concept of judicial review, Supreme Court has power to make law
1819 Dartmouth College v. Woodward
Establishes private charters, paving way for corporations to claim constitutional rights
1868 14th Amendment
Black males are U.S. citizens: “… nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”
1874 Minor v. Happersett
14th Amendment only intended for black males: women are not persons under law
1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad
Equal protection under law conferred to corporations; corporations can claim constitutional rights intended for humans
1889 Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad
Corporation is a “person” for both due process and equal protection
1896 Plessy v. Ferguson
Separate but equal is constitutional: Black males essentially lose 14th Amendment rights
1905 Lochner v. New York
Doctrine of Substantive Due Process: Constitution can be used to invalidate government regulation of corporations
1906 Hale v. Henkel
Corporations usurp 4th Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure, reducing power of government to hold corporations accountable to laws
1908 Armour Packing Co. v. US
Corporations get 6th Amendment right to jury trial in criminal cases
1919 Dodge v. Ford Motor Co.
Michigan Supreme Court establishes shareholder primacy: corporations exist for the profit of their shareholders, still the leading case on corporate purpose
1920 19th Amendment
Women win the right to vote
1922 Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon
Corporations usurp the 5th Amendment “takings clause”: government regulation is deemed a taking
1933 Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee
Higher taxes on corporations violates 14th Amendment and Commerce clause of Constitution
1954 Brown v. Board of Education
Separate is not equal; ends racial discrimination in public schools
1964 24th Amendment
Abolishes poll taxes used to keep Blacks and others from voting
1970 Ross v. Bernhard
Corporations usurp 7th Amendment right to jury trial in civil cases
1971 Reed v. Reed
14th Amendment applies to women (85 years after corporations)
1976 Buckley v. Valeo
Political money equals speech
1976 Virginia Board of Pharmacy
v. Virginia Consumer Council
Advertising protected as free speech
1977 First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti
Bans state restrictions on corporate spending on citizen initiatives
1986 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. v. Public Utilities Commission
Corporate right not to speak protected, eliminating truth in labeling
2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
Corporations allowed unlimited spending in election campaigns, destroying integrity of election process and disabling democracy
Excerpted from Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom timeline www.wilpf.org

The latter was the case on January 21, 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations were entitled to spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigns.

The ruling overturned a century of laws that were designed to curtail corporations’ role in elections. In essence, the decision disables democracy. Now it will be possible for corporate-elected officials to pass corporate-written laws that will be interpreted by corporate-elected judges. We will have government of, for, and by The Corporation.

Or will we?

Throughout our history, citizens of the United States have risen up to correct court decisions that threaten the ideal of our democratic republic – “ideal” because we have never achieved in practice the promise of real democracy, wherein the people rule. As the late historian Howard Zinn observed: “Our legal system, the Constitution, and the courts have always been tools of the wealthy classes.”

And yet … the uprising that began in response to Citizens United may fundamentally transform the power structure. An ABC/Washington Post poll found that 80 percent of Americans disagreed with the Supreme Court. There is now a great opportunity for us to demand constitutional amendments to defend the integrity of our democratic ideal. A populist movement spurred by the Court’s outrageous act could ultimately lead to a revamped system that will provide the people with more power than we had before the decision.

Ultimate Civics, a one-year-old project of Earth Island Institute, is using Citizens United to coalesce a popular movement around the overarching principle at stake: not just election integrity, but sovereignty. The deeper issue raised in the Citizens United case was, “Who rules?” Is it people or property? Ultimate Civics advocates rule by the people – just as the American colonists did 234 years ago.

Unfortunately, people settled for too little after the American Revolution. The War of Independence was largely promoted by white men with property: one group representing landowners and those with large commercial interests, and another group that included shopkeepers and skilled artisans. The interests of the two groups clashed in the state legislatures, which were the governing authorities under the Articles of Confederation. The small business owners wanted high state tariffs to protect their businesses, while those with larger landowners wanted “free trade” between the states.

Those with more property took the power of the pen and rewrote the governing rules at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Constitution, once the Bill of Rights was included, became a groundbreaking governing doctrine balancing individual rights against the collective duties of government, and sovereign people operating in the private sphere against an accountable government operating as a public entity. Corporations were to be created by the government and would be considered subordinate, public entities.

Despite the head start that property rights had over people’s rights, groups of people like the abolitionists and suffragists challenged the elite and demanded their inalienable rights as humans. This pushed the wealthy elite to look for new ways to consolidate their power.

A landmark court decision in 1819 gave corporate “persons” standing in the Constitution and paved the way for corporations to later claim constitutional rights. The notion was controversial from the start. Thomas Jefferson warned: “Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation of power first, and then by corruption, its necessary consequence.”

After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment extended due process and equal protection to African-American men. But some corporate attorneys saw the amendment could be used for other purposes. While the Declaration of Independence claimed “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as unalienable human rights, these “self-evident” truths were reinterpreted to “life, liberty, or property” in the Fourteenth Amendment. The tension between democratic and aristocratic principles has driven our history ever since.

During the first 20 years after the amendment’s ratification, there were 307 lawsuits brought under this amendment – 19 by Black men and 288 by corporations seeking standing as legal persons. In 1886, the court, in casual remarks written in a decision’s headnotes, agreed corporate “persons” were entitled to equal protection, setting the legal precedent known as the Corporate Constitutional Rights Doctrine. The Supreme Court had granted these legal fictions the same rights as living, breathing, human beings.

Since 1886, corporations have tirelessly pursued more and more of the constitutional rights intended for humans. They have then wielded their “rights” against people to overturn democratically enacted laws that attempt to protect our elections, safety and health, environment, and right to organize democratic trade unions. For example, corporate persons have used their Fourth Amendment “rights” to hide violations of worker safety laws, food packing laws, and environmental laws. Corporations have used Fifth Amendment “rights” to shield themselves from government regulations and also to influence political elections and policy makers, block citizens’ initiatives, and falsely advertise products.

Wielding both human rights and superhuman legal privileges, corporations have amassed enormous wealth and power. Today, corporate capitalism defines our consumer culture and has established making money as the overriding value of our society. Creating sustainable communities that instead value social justice, economic equity, and environmental health is virtually impossible in this pretend democracy. This crisis of democracy lies at the heart of the climate crisis, economic meltdown, corporate globalization, and other ills.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” It is self-evident which one we currently have.

To remedy this dire situation, Ultimate Civics co-founded and serves on the steering committee of the national grassroots coalition, the Campaign to Legalize Democracy. The coalition is organizing a people’s movement to overrule the Citizens United decision and coordinate ratification of a series of democracy amendments to the Constitution, akin to the post-Civil War emancipation and voting rights amendments.

The goal of the Campaign to Legalize Democracy is to abolish corporate personhood by affirming that only human beings are entitled to constitutional protections; to establish that money is not speech; and to protect local communities from “preemption” actions (i.e. overturning democratically enacted local laws) by global, federal, and state governments and entities such as the World Trade Organization.

The Citizens United ruling is just the latest evidence that our governing system is, at best, a pretend democracy. It has rendered our political system incapable of delivering the systemic transformation demanded at this time. Yet within this disaster we can find the seeds of fundamental change – a transitional path to a sustainable society and the creation of true democracy with a government of, for, and by the people. Join us!

Take Action:
To learn more about efforts to pass constitutional amendments strengthening our democracy, visit www.movetoamend.org or

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