The next time you happen to pass through a South Valley railroad
crossing, think about Citizens United v. Federal Election
Commission. I bet you’ve never heard of this legal case now pending
a decision by the United States Supreme Court. But what the nine
justices rule on Citizens United will determine the future vitality
of American democracy.
The next time you happen to pass through a South Valley railroad crossing, think about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I bet you’ve never heard of this legal case now pending a decision by the United States Supreme Court. But what the nine justices rule on Citizens United will determine the future vitality of American democracy.
There’s a fascinating historic link between our local train tracks and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Let me share some background with you to explain the connection.
In 2008, conservative political group Citizens United produced the video “Hillary: The Movie” in an effort to damage Hillary Clinton’s election campaign for the White House. The movie was never shown because it got caught up in a legal battle with the FEC. The FEC charged that because Citizens United is incorporated and received corporate financing, the group and the video came under the jurisdiction of federal regulations related to election laws.
The Supreme Court took on the case by focusing on the issue of whether all corporations, like individuals, have the right to freely spend money to elect or defeat candidates in elections. The case hinges on this question: Are corporations legally considered “persons” and thus entitled to the First Amendment right of free speech?
How does Citizens United link to the South Valley? To answer that question, let’s go back to the year 1886 and consider another Supreme Court case, a relatively minor one. Let me introduce you to Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company.
This 19th century case dealt with fences along California’s railroad tracks. The Southern Pacific Railroad refused to pay Santa Clara County and other counties the property taxes charged to it. Thus California’s counties lost considerable revenue every year. Administrators for Santa Clara County sued the Southern Pacific. The case wound its way to the United States Supreme Court. The justices ruled that the state of California, in accessing the total value of Southern Pacific property, was wrong to include fences bordering the railroad tracks. Thus, Santa Clara County could not collect these property taxes.
The historic interest in this relatively obscure property tax case might have ended there if not for court reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis. In the head-note of the brief pertaining to this case, Davis wrote: “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”
These two sentences essentially state that corporations can benefit from the same constitutional rights and protections as a natural-born citizen is granted under the 14th Amendment. There’s a problem, however. The Supreme Court justices in 1886 never made this astonishing conclusion. Davis overstepped his duties as court reporter by misinterpreting the ruling. His incorrect head-note accidentally granted corporations with the right to be legally considered “persons.”
No one in the 21st century can say for sure whether or not Davis created this misinterpretation intentionally. I suspect it was no blunder. Previous to being the court reporter, he served as the president of the Newburgh and New York Railway Company. For me, that conflict of interest points to what might have been his real motives in miswriting his head-note and thereby giving railroad companies (and all other corporations) such a generous gift as “corporate personhood.” Davis’s words legally made large businesses in America the equivalent to flesh-and-blood human beings.
The impact of Davis’s pseudo-legal inclusion has been significant in American law. Later Supreme Court justices used Davis’s words as a precedent in expanding corporate power. Justice William O. Douglas in 1949 warned, “The Santa Clara case becomes one of the most momentous of all our decisions … Corporations were now armed with constitutional prerogatives.”
The idea that corporations are “persons” goes against the philosophy of the men who framed our nation’s Constitution. Nowhere in that document did they ever make mention of “corporations.” And from their writings, it’s clearly evident the Framers believed in a fundamental difference between economic entities such as businesses, and living, breathing entities such as people.
Corporations do have legal rights, of course. They have special status such as limited liability and the ability to essentially exist forever. But to make the argument that corporations must be considered “legal persons” with the same rights as flesh-and-blood human beings is not only ridiculous, it’s dangerous. It jeopardizes America’s democratic system.
Political pundits believe the Supreme Court will decide in favor of Citizens United and thus extend to corporations even greater powers of “personhood.” If that happens, America faces a crisis in its electoral process. Democracy will stand at a historic crossroads. Ponder that next time you cross a South Valley railroad track.