Supreme Court’s Corporate Personhood Cases Built on False Pretenses

Supreme Court’s Corporate Personhood Cases Built on False Pretenses

A couple of weeks after the far-right activist Supreme Court erroneously ruled 5-4 that corporations have many of the same rights as living breathing citizens of this country, I finally found an article by Thom Hartmann that I remembered reading over seven years ago.  I found the article via an article on the Project Censored website

It was back in 1886 that a Supreme Court decision (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company) ostensibly led to corporate personhood and free speech rights, thereby guaranteeing protections under the 1st and 14th amendments.  However, according to Thom Hartmann, the relatively mundane court case never actually granted these personhood rights to corporations. (cut to Hartmann article)

[Excerpt from a letter penned by Abraham Lincoln] “As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.  I feel at this moment more anxiety than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

Lincoln’s suspicions were prescient.  In the 1886 Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state tax assessor, not the county assessor, had the right to determine the taxable value of fenceposts along the railroad’s right-of-way.

However, in writing up the case’s headnote – a commentary that has no precedential status – the Court’s reporter, a former railroad president named J.C. Bancroft Davis, opened the headnote with the sentence: “The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Oddly, the court had ruled no such thing.  As a handwritten note from Chief Justice Waite to reporter Davis that now is held in the National Archives said:  “we avoided meeting the Constitutional question in the decision.”  And nowhere in the decision itself does the Court say corporations are persons.

Nonetheless, corporate attorneys picked up the language of Davis’s headnote and began to quote it like a mantra.  Soon the Supreme Court itself, in a stunning display of either laziness (not reading the actual case) or deception (rewriting the Constitution without issuing an opinion or having open debate on the issue), was quoting Davis’s headnote in subsequent cases.  While Davis’s Santa Clara headnote didn’t have the force of law, once the Court quoted it as the basis for later decisions its new doctrine of corporate personhood became the law.

… and from a few paragraphs earlier in the Hartmann article:

Corporations are non-living, non-breathing, legal fictions. They feel no pain. They don’t need clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, or healthy food to consume. They can live forever. They can’t be put in prison. They can change their identity or appearance in a day, change their citizenship in an hour, rip off parts of themselves and create entirely new entities. Some have compared corporations with robots, in that they are human creations that can outlive individual humans, performing their assigned tasks forever.

Isaac Asimov, when considering a world where robots had become as functional, intelligent, and more powerful than their human creators, posited three fundamental laws that would determine the behavior of such potentially dangerous human-made creations. His Three Laws of Robotics stipulated that non-living human creations must obey humans yet never behave in a way that would harm humans.

And from there I offer you two frames from today’s edition of This Modern World:

TMW Corporate American 2-3

Click on the frames or here to read the whole comic.  Go on now…

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