How in the world did our Supreme Court come to the conclusion that corporations were people? Citizens United The debate over whether they are or not had been going on for 200 years, though I little knew it. As late as 1914, in a case before the Michigan Supreme Court, a brewery lost its bid to pump big bucks into local elections. That high state court nixed the idea, saying it was self-evident a brewery wasn’t a person and had no right to participate in elections. (“Company Men,” by Kim Phillips-Fein, The New Republic, April 2018, pg. 49.)
Such a sensible conclusion should have ended the matter. Besides, why should an entrepreneur get two bites of the election apple – one as an individual and another as a person-corporation?
Unfortunately, where humans are concerned, matters are never obvious, predictable or settled. Liberal as well as conservative factions refused to let the argument drop. Ralph Nader, champion of the political left, in 1970 entered the fray. His cohorts argued against a prohibition that barred pharmaceutical companies from advertising drug prices. They called the prohibition a gag rule that violated the First Amendment. Their intent was to give consumers the ability to compare prescription costs. Any gag rule, Nader’s people argued, infringed upon the “rights of listeners.” (Ibid pg. 51.) That argument prevailed.
We can’t blame Nader and his gang for all our ills, but certainly, they played fast and loose with the First Amendment and opened the door for Citizen United. After that, other lawyers took a squint at other Amendments. Some ventured as far as the Fourteenth. That provision wasn’t merely to preserve citizenship rights for former slaves and their descendants, they said. The law was also intended to protect citizenship rights for corporations. No evidence supports this claim, but it gained traction in the minds of many.
Time passed and the arcane debate evolved. Government, some insisted, should not distinguish between different kinds of speakers – those who speak as individuals and those who speak through a corporation. (Ibid pg. 52.) That perspective, among others, prevailed in Citizens United and changed the course of history. Corporations with excess cash can now dominate our politics in a way most ordinary citizens can’t.
Supreme Court Justices who sided with corporations in Citizen United weren’t simply too conservative or too rich to care, though some may think it. To be fair, the judges faced a mountain of case-law that supported the idea from both sides of the political spectrum.
Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA has published a new book on the subject: We The Corporations: How Businesses Won Their Civil Rights. Pogo and his enemy principle is alive and well, it seems.