Thursday, February 10, 2011
By Tom Sturm
The wording of a new resolution brought to the Vermont State Legislature by state senator Virginia Lyons is stark and unambiguous: "The profits and institutional survival of large corporations are often in direct conflict with the essential needs and rights of human beings." Corporations, the resolution continues, "have used their so-called rights to successfully seek the judicial reversal of democratically enacted laws," leaving democratically elected governments "ineffective in protecting their citizens against corporate harm to the environment, health, workers, independent business, and local and regional economies."
Lyons introduced the bill on the recent first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision, which, through Byzantine interpretations of precedents that gave corporations "personhood" via the 14th Amendment, allowed them the same First Amendment rights as citizens are granted under the Constitution. President Obama somewhat boldly addressed members of the court at last year's State of the Union Address, saying the decision would "open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections."
Much of the controversy surrounds another facet of the ongoing argument—the notion that money is equivalent to speech, and that therefore no limits should be placed on expenditures for political advertising during federal election campaigns. Many argue that even well-organized groups of individuals cannot hope to compete with the vast amounts of aggregated cash that corporations can produce as needed, and that most individuals do not own their own newspapers, television stations or the other media networks that offer a greatly amplified voice to the political views of corporations that do.
Sources within the traditionally progressive Vermont State House say the resolution has momentum, and that it has a good chance of passing. National progressive reformers like 2004 Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb think the movement could quickly grow legs and spark similar resolutions in other states, especially considering that a recent ABC News poll showed that 76 percent of Americans oppose the Citizens United decision.
Cobb, who is a constitutional lawyer, came to Vermont to help draft the initiative, the first of its kind to directly address the "legal fiction" of corporate personhood.
Cobb and others argue the point that giving corporations personhood essentially makes them superhuman by default, since unlike persons they never die, cannot be jailed and can change their names and identities overnight or split pieces off themselves to form entirely new fictional persons, always staying a few steps ahead of laws established to contain or regulate them, like adaptable viruses that mutate to outpace a system's immune response. Many have also noted the irony that corporations are owned by real people, which arguably defines them as slaves, and that freeing slaves was the primary reason for which the 14th Amendment was created, though it has since been legally convoluted to empower corporations.
"Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires," wrote Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion in Citizens United. "Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."
Several national political reform groups have recently come to the realization that it might be more effective to combine forces in an assault on this single issue than to dedicate their often limited and fragmented resources to hundreds of battles on individual issues, like workers' rights and environmental regulation. Vermont's pending resolution gives a legal voice to this movement, stating that the current state of juridical obscurity around the issue is an "intolerable societal reality" which can only be addressed by amending the U.S. Constitution to define a "person" exclusively as a human being. The complete text of Lyons' bill, J.R.S. 11, is not yet available online, but may be posted by press time at www.leg.state.vt.us/database/status/summary.cfm?Bill=JRS011&Session=2012.