Who Gave Organizations the Same Rights as Individual Citizens? No One.


Summary:

It is widely believed that the 14th Amendment gives organizations the same rights as individuals.  It is also widely believed that the famous 1886 Supreme Court Case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, affirms that right.

Based on original research by Thom Hartman, the decision made in the Santa Clara court case did not make a single reference to the 14th Amendment, nor to the equal rights of corporations, as the basis for the decision.  In addition, the 14th amendment does not make a single reference to any form of organization having the same rights as individual citizens.  On the contrary, the language actually used makes it abundantly clear that the “persons” it refers to are individual humans.

Many believe – including me – that this is an issue that has extremely broad agreement across the entire political spectrum:  Progressive, conservative and moderate, Democrat, Republican, Libertarians, Greens, and Independents, MoveOn Activists, and Tea Party supporters.

We need to unite around what we agree on in order to make any progress.

Here are the details if you would like to see them:

In a particularly lucid interview, the historian Thom Hartman explained how the legal notion of corporate personhood evolved from a bizarre interpretation of the 14th amendment, and now appears to give corporations the same rights as individual citizens.  (Also see his new book:  Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became People — And How You Can Fight Back.)

In the interview, Hartmann says: “I think it was clear to the authors, and pretty much to everybody, that they (the authors of the 14th Amendment) were talking about human beings — natural persons.”

He also states that the first legal precedent for giving corporations the rights of “persons” was the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case in 1886. Every attorney and law student believes this; and yet when Hartmann researched the original court case and read the Court’s decision, the Court did not make any reference to the 14th Amendment rights of persons, even though that right was argued by the railroad.  Instead, the rights of corporations as persons was described in the “head notes” to the decision which have no legal authority and which were written by the clerk of the court, who was personally biased in favor of the railroads.

In the conclusion of the interview Hartmann says that what we need to do to reverse the ‘personhood’ of corporations is to add a new amendment that clarifies that the 14th amendment pertains only to human persons.

However, my question is:  Why do we need a constitutional amendment when  it is now clear that Santa Clara County v. S. Pacific did not affirm the corporate personhood interpretation, and when the very language of the 14th amendment makes it clear that it pertained only to real humans?

If you read the entire text of the 14th amendment, you will see the word “persons” used many times, but for every use of the word, the authors were clearly talking only about human persons, as individuals, and not referring to an organization as a “person.”

Here are the uses of the word “persons” in the 14th Amendment:

Section 1

a) Refers to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”   Corporations and other types of organizations are not “born” nor are they naturalized.

b) States that all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are “citizens” of the U.S. and should thus have the same rights as any other citizens.   Corporations, labor unions, non-profits, churches, and other organizations are clearly not citizens of the U.S.  Otherwise, every organization in the country could also vote, which they can’t.

c)  States that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process.   Organizations can be closed down, but they can’t “be deprived of life” because they’re not alive.

Section 2:

a) States that apportionment of members of the House of Representatives is to be based on the “whole number of persons in each State.”  Corporations and other types of organizations are not counted when determining congressional apportionment.  (Do you really want to interpret it that way?)

b)   Refers to the number of “male citizens.”  Clearly this isn’t talking about corporations or other types of organizations.

Section 3:

a) States that “no person shall be a Senator or Representative” if that person has participated in a rebellion against the government.   This use of “person” is clearly not including corporations or other types of organizations.

So the language of the 14th Amendment is certainly not talking about organizations; it is talking only about human individuals as persons.

If any amendment were going to take the extraordinary step of giving corporations, universities, membership organizations, etc., etc., the full rights of individual citizens the language would need to be very explicit in order for any judge with integrity to make such a  radical interpretation.   And yet, the 14th amendment does not make a single reference to any form of organization having the same rights as individual citizens.  On the contrary, the language actually used makes it abundantly clear that the “persons” it refers to are individual humans.

The fact that organizations are not given the right to cast a vote is also evidence that no one is seriously ready to give all organizations in the country the same rights as human citizens.

The very fact that such a bizarre interpretation of the 14th amendment has made its way into our court system is “smoking gun” evidence that over the past century a few enormously wealthy corporations have had extraordinary power in getting their way.  Thom Hartmann’s research, plus elementary logic both make it clear that this has been the case.   And this is exactly why such organizations should not have the same rights as individuals.

In order to reverse this very damaging state of affairs, we should not need to make a new amendment to state that the 14th amendment does not say what it does not say.  And yet, what else can we do?  We can’t sue the Supreme Court; we can only ask Congress to impeach one or more members.   But, given the mess we’re now in, where wealthy corporations have undue power over elections, we can’t really expect Congress to take such a radical step.

Our only hope is to unite a majority of the natural, human persons in the country around this issue.   This is surely an issue where a majority of moderates, progressives and conservatives, ultra-liberals, tea-partiers and libertarians, all agree on.

Ask them to read the 14th Amendment and tell you whether they think that the people who voted for that amendment somehow believed that corporations and other organizations are “persons” who are born or naturalized, or are male or female, or could possibly become Senators, or who have the right to vote.

Also ask them if they really believe that extreme wealth should play such a huge role as it does in determining which candidates can spend the most money to get its messages across and to attack their opponents.

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1 Response to “Who Gave Organizations the Same Rights as Individual Citizens? No One.”


  1. 1 Cindy Johnson November 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Duncan, thank you for this. It makes so much sense to deal with this issue, and as you say, do it across the board. Could be a good uniting point, at the very least.


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