Whose Rights? Challenging Corporate Power
A new Supreme Court decision promotes corporate rights at the expense of the rights of citizens. Changing the legal structure itself may be the best way to protect democracy.
Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—giving corporations the ability to spend money directly to influence federal elections under the Constitution’s First Amendment—was inevitable. It represents a logical expansion of corporate constitutional “rights”—which include the rights of persons which have been judicially conferred upon corporations. “Personhood” rights mean that corporations possess First Amendment rights to free speech, along with a litany of other rights that are secured to persons under the federal Bill of Rights.
The expansion of corporate rights and privileges under the law has been deliberate, beginning nearly two hundred years ago with the Dartmouth decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that private corporations had rights that municipal corporations—governments composed of “we the people”—did not.
For the past two centuries, new court decisions have only expanded corporate rights and privileges. For those who think that the way to stem this tide is to find the perfect lawsuit, stop looking. It doesn’t exist, for there is no magic bullet.
Rather, in order to reverse decisions like Citizens United, the whole concept of corporate “rights”—and the way they interfere with the exercise of rights by people, communities, and nature—must be examined. And, it’s not simply that corporations have “personhood” rights. It goes well beyond that.
Today’s structure of law gives corporations a spectrum of legal and constitutional rights which they routinely wield against people, communities, and nature. Corporations have more rights, for example, than the communities in which they seek to do business. They can and do use those rights to lobby Congress, impact elections, and to decide for us what we eat, whether mountaintops are blown off or not, whether there are fish in the oceans, and on and on. Their constitutional and other legal rights, together with their wealth, guarantee that they can define the debates that lead to the adoption of new laws—and often write the laws themselves.
Thus the context for understanding today’s decision is that we have a minority set of corporate interests, empowered by government to wield their rights against a majority. It is the history of this nation. The abolitionists, the suffragists, and the civil rights movement all built movements of people in order to drive rights (for slaves, for women, for African Americans) into law—which necessarily meant eliminating rights for a minority, such as the slaveholder. In the end, it is our constitutional structure of law that purposefully places the rights of property and commerce over the rights of people, communities, and nature. History shows that strong peoples' movements can make change by changing the legal structure itself.
In some ways, the Citizens United ruling is merely part of a predetermined destiny set by a 1700s constitutional structure that placed greater priority on the rights of property and commerce than on the rights of people and nature. Reversing Citizens United means reversing that constitutional legacy.
Today, to those who recognize that we do not have democracy when corporations located thousands of miles away are making decisions about our communities instead of us, who recognize that we cannot have sustainability so long as corporations are able to decide how clean our air and water can be, who recognize that we’ll never have true health care reform so long as corporations have greater access to our elected representatives than the people who voted for them—to those people, today’s decision should be understood as just another brick in the wall, another step down a path that will only continue unless and until a real movement for the rights of people, communities, and nature is built. That is the work we are doing. We hope you will join us.
Thomas Linzey and Mari Margil wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Thomas is executive director, cofounder, and chief legal counsel and Mari is associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a public interest law firm that has worked with municipalities to question whether corporate “rights” can coexist with the democratic rights of communities to local self-government. Through the adoption of local, binding laws, these communities are pioneering a new structure of law which does not recognize the rights and privileges of corporations.
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