Corporate Persons

In 1905 in his annual message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt declared:

“All contributions by corporations to any political committee for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.”

As retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens points out in his discussion of an amendment he has proposed to the U.S. Constitution that would curb excessive spending on political campaigns, the courts consistently maintained for years that corporations are not persons and therefore not entitled to the same rights as citizens of this nation. For one thing, corporations cannot vote, whereas citizens can. Conservative Justice William Rehnquist in 1982 wrote for the unanimous court in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee, “there is no reason why Congress’ interest in preventing both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption of elected representatives may not be accomplished by treating. . . corporations differently from individuals.”

The change in the Court’s position came about indirectly, beginning in 1990 in a dissenting opinion written by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy to Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in which they contended that corporate speech, like other expressive activities by groups of persons, was entitled to the same First Amendment protection as speech by an individual. This opened the can of worms that has become the ugly Citizens United Supreme Court case that recently maintained, drawing on Scalia and Kennedy’s opinion above, that since corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals, they have the right to support political candidates without restrictions. As Stevens notes in this regard, “[Scalia’s arguments in 1990] provided the basis for the court’s five to four decision in Citizens United overruling  the Michigan case and apparently affording the same constitutional protection to election-related expenditures by corporations as to speech by individuals.” Sheer magic: political donations are a form of free speech and corporations are people even though they cannot vote and (so far as we know) they cannot copulate.

Needless to say, the Citizens United case stands in glaring opposition to the concerns raised in 1905 by President Roosevelt and upheld by the courts for 105 years thereafter. Roosevelt was expressing the obvious concern about the undue influence of wealth on elections that would tilt the playing field and render ineffective the attempts by the less wealthy to have any voice in politics whatever. As Stevens says, one of the many consequences of this imbalance is the “public’s perception of the role of money in influencing the outcome of elections. Voters who would believe that the power of the purse will determine the outcome of elections are more likely to become bystanders rather than participants in the political process.” Indeed. One need look no further for an explanation as to why citizens have become increasingly disenchanted with the political process and why several analysts have determined that America has become a de facto oligarchy and can be regarded as a democracy in name only.

Stevens does not suggest an amendment to deal directly with the issue of whether corporations are or are not persons — as is currently under discussion nation-wide — but rather an amendment that simply allows states and the Congress to set “reasonable limits” to campaign contributions without insisting that these limitations are in any way in conflict with the First Amendment: limits on campaign spending should not be considered limits on free speech. But whether this Court or this Congress could manage to work with a nebulous concept such as “reasonable limits” is questionable, so the issue remains how to put restraints on those with great wealth who would make the government dance to the tunes they play on their diamond-studded harmonicas. — especially since those who might place those restraints on the wealthy are busy dancing to their tunes.  As things now stand, the recent Supreme Court decisions have given the corporations and the 1% of this country who control the vast majority of the wealth virtual control of the political process. Corporations and the very wealthy can determine who runs and who gets elected — and what those people will do once elected.

In a masterpiece of understatement, Stevens concludes that “The decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction.” Teddy Roosevelt would agree.

 

Brilliant Idea!

An acquaintance of mine recently urged one of my best friends in the very small rural town in which I live to get a permit and buy himself a weapon. “Everyone is doing it,” he said, including himself and his daughter. I suppose he feels it necessary to be armed to protect himself against would-be terrorists invading rural Minnesota — or, perhaps marauding Vikings. Whatever. Poor, frightened little man. I feel sorry for him. But his kind is becoming increasingly common in this country, as we all know. And these folks feel they have a “right” to carry a weapon because the Constitution tells them so. As I have noted in previous blogs, this “right” is predicated on the necessity of an armed militia to protect home and hearth against attacks from England — or wherever. But only those who actually read the Second Amendment would know that. The framers worried more about a standing army that would threaten states’ rights then they did an armed citizenry.

Indeed, it is the fact that the supposed “right” to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution is predicated on the necessity to have a well-armed militia that is ignored in the frenzy to simply own and be prepared to use the latest assault weapon to protect ourselves against whatever ghosts and goblins might be out there wanting to get us. Americans, more and more of them each day, simply want to own and carry weapons because they are fearful. But in a brilliant chapter in his latest book, Six Amendments: How And Why We Should Change The Constitution, retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens has suggested a re-write of the Second Amendment that would restore it to its original meaning and undermine the terribly weak argument we hear almost daily about the right to bear arms. His re-wording would place the emphasis of the Amendment where it belongs: on the need to have an armed militia, not the supposed right of every Tom, Dick, and Sally to pack heat. In making his case, Stevens notes that “For over two hundred years following the adoption of that amendment federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text. . . applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes.”  That lengthy period was followed by an extensive campaign by the NRA to help the gun manufacturers sell weapons, and this altered the game radically.

The Amendment, as the framers wrote it, states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Stevens suggests a five word insert that would clarify the meaning:” A well-regulated Militia, being  necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.” Positively brilliant.

What this means is that those who have been designated as protectors of the nation, say the National Guard, have a Constitutional right to keep and bear arms — others do not. This is clearly what the founders intended and the way it was understood for 200 years, and if it were written in this fashion it would undermine the arguments of the nutters today who are responsible for approximately eighty-eight firearms deaths every day in this country (30,000 each year) and might possibly open the door to a debate at the highest levels about whether or not there ought to be some sort of restrictions on the sale and use of such things as automatic weapons that are clearly designed to kill people, not wild game. As Judge Stevens points out:

“Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands. Those emotional arguments would be nullified by the adoption of my proposed amendment. The amendment certainly  would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument.”

Organizations like the National Rifle Association would continue to argue for the “right” of everyone and his dog to own guns of every possible variety, but on this re-write of the Second Amendment they would have to base that supposed “right” on something other than the Second Amendment which, as Stevens argues, never did support such license. What the grounds for that supposed “right” might be in the absence of a misreading of the U.S. Constitution one can only imagine; but one can bet guns would continue to be sold to frightened people who really don’t need to pretend they have any sound reasons for simply wanting to own a gun.