Corporate Personhood

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Historical Background

In the Supreme Court decision
Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), United States corporations were recognized as having rights to contract, and to have those contracts honored, the same as contracts entered into by natural persons. The word "corporation" does not appear in the U.S. Constitution and this ruling effectively gave corporations new standing in the Constitution. Beginning in 1870, U.S. corporations employed lawyers to challenge existing laws claiming that corporations are "the same as natural persons" in the eyes of the court and should enjoy the same constitutional rights as natural persons. These were legal attempts to weaken government control over their behavior, and their growth. These aggressive court maneuvers culminated in an 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The lawyers for the Southern Pacific Railroad claimed that the State of California was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by requiring the railroad to pay taxes based on the assessment of their property at it's full monetary value, rather than being taxed after deduction of the mortgage like railroads that operate in just one county and like natural persons do. The implication, of course, is that the state has no right to decide that corporations get taxed differently than humans, and that the Fourteenth Amendment affords them equal protection under the law.

While the court did not rule on whether corporations are persons in the
Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad case, a quote by Chief Justice Morrison Remick to that effect was entered into the final record by an overzealous court reporter. The justice was speaking to the attorneys in the case and said, “The court does not to wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a state to deny to any person within it’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are of the opinion that it does.” That was the precedent for hundreds of court cases claiming personhood rights for corporations. 

The Fourteenth Amendment, known as the Equal Protection clause was enacted in 1868 to give former slaves the same rights as other U.S. citizens. But between 1890 and 1910, of the 307 Fourteenth Amendment cases that came before the Supreme Court, 19 were brought on behalf of African Americans and 288 were brought on behalf of corporations. These corporations have been successful in claiming personhood rights for everything from the free speech, in the form of campaign contributions, to protection from illegal search and seizure, resulting in less effective anti-pollution, health and safety laws. 

AFDMC supports current efforts to amend the constitution to repeal corporate personhood. 

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