It is an odd twist that an amendment designed to end slavery is being used to enslave us all.
One of the most bizarre arguments ever brought before a judge came in the case of Santa Clara County VS. Southern Pacific Railroad. The local government of Santa Clara County sought company information from Southern Pacific. The railroad’s lawyers, thinking themselves overly clever, made a stunning claim: Southern Pacific was in fact a person under the Fourteenth Amendment, and was therefore entitled to all the protections of any other citizen – namely, protections of the Fifth Amendment (the right to refuse to testify), and the Fourth (the right to be free of unlawful search and seizure).
The Fourteenth Amendment, intended to grant citizenship to slaves, reads in part, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States … No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States …”
Corporations had long been referred to as “artificial persons” in legal documents, and thus, the lawyers argued, had the same rights to citizenship as emancipated slaves.
Of course, this was silliness, and the judge ruled against Southern Pacific.
But in a common practice, a court clerk wrote a summary of the decision, called a head note. This summary is frequently cited as precedent in later cases. In the case of Santa Clara Vs. Southern Pacific, the clerk–a former employee of the railroad–wrote in the head note that Southern Pacific had in fact won the case (he lied), and that the court had found that the corporation was indeed a person. That erroneous precedent has been used by courts ever since in granting corporations the full rights of a human citizen.
The difference between humans and corporations, of course, is that a corporation is immortal. It can change identities overnight. It can vanish in one place and appear in another part of the world, or in hundreds of places all at once. Corporations have no souls, no conscience. If a corporation were a person, we’d look at it as a kind of vampire. The imperative of the corporation is to consume.
Libertarians will argue that corporations offer a product or service in a free exchange for profit. This is true as far as it goes; but corporate shareholder agreements don’t demand the selling of anything–they simply legally stipulate that the corporation must make a profit. How they make a profit is up to the corporation – and ultimately it is up to the state (which created and licensed the corporation in the first place) to safeguard citizens from corporate malfeasance.
For much of our first century, corporations were reviewed each year to answer the question: ‘Is this company serving the interests of society?’ If not, the corporation was abolished. This is merely a matter of not granting, or withdrawing, the corporate license. The Corporate Death Penalty, as it was called, was routinely applied. It still exists; it simply isn’t enforced anymore, because big-money interests have bribed officials, via ‘contributions,’ into looking the other way.
A growing number of states and cities are passing ordinances banning corporate personhood. Unfortunately, recent Supreme Court decisions have upheld the status quo foisted upon us by Southern Pacific. This is not shocking; Chief Justice John Roberts built his career arguing in favor of corporate personhood for large corporations.
It has been pointed out that if the Corporate Death Penalty were still applied, BP’s oil spill in the Gulf would never have happened, because the company would long ago have been convicted of manslaughter in a variety of previous cases. Union Carbide and Goldman Sachs– responsible for mass murder and mass fraud, respectively–would have been dissolved.
Vampires love the darkness, and corporate persons love secrecy. The Supreme Court has unleashed an impenetrable fog that hides the campaign funding of these entities. Our government has been captured and is being bled dry by them – along with the rest of us.
Only the hope of a brilliant dawning of human consciousness can save us. There are streaks across the sky in the Occupy Movement, and MoveToAmend.org.
May we keep those fires burning until daybreak.