–By Thom Hartmann
January 17, 2011- The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
—John Stuart Mill
In 2003, after my book Unequal Protection was first published, I gave a talk at one of the larger law schools in Vermont. Around 300 people showed up, mostly students, with a few dozen faculty and some local lawyers. I started by asking, “Please raise your hand if you know that in 1886, in the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons and therefore entitled to rights under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
Almost everyone in the room raised their hand, and the few who didn’t probably were new enough to the law that they hadn’t gotten to study that case yet. Nobody questioned the basic premise of the statement.
And all of them were wrong.
We the People are the first three words of the Preamble to the Constitution; and from its adoption until the Robber Baron Era in the late nineteenth century, people meant human beings. In the 1886 Santa Clara case, however, the court reporter of the Supreme Court proclaimed in a “headnote”—a summary or statement added at the top of the court decision, which is separate from the decision and has no legal force whatsoever—that the word person in law and, particularly, in the Constitution, meant both humans and corporations.
Thus began in a big way (it actually started a half century earlier in a much smaller way with a case involving Dartmouth University) the corruption of American democracy and the shift, over the 125 years since then, to our modern corporate oligarchy.
Most recently, in a January 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John G. Roberts, took the radical step of overturning more than a hundred years of laws passed by elected legislatures and signed by elected presidents and declared that not only are corporations “persons” but that they have constitutional rights such as the First Amendment right to free speech.
This decision is clear evidence of how far we have drifted away as a nation from our foundational principles and values. Particularly since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, over the past three decades our country and its democratic ideals have been hijacked by what Joseph Pulitzer a hundred years ago famously called “predatory plutocracy.”
The Citizens United decision, which empowers and elevates corporations above citizens, is not just a symbolic but a real threat to our democracy, and only the will of We the People, exercised through a constitutional amendment to deny personhood to corporations, can slay the dragon the Court has unleashed.