A progressive argument against anti-corporate personhood resolutions

Winston-Salem Councilman Dan Besse holds a reputation within the NC Democratic Party as a progressive. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2008 on a platform of public investment and environmental protection, but ended up splitting the urban vote with fellow progressive Democrat Hampton Dellinger in a Democratic primary that promoted the more moderate Walter Dalton to the office.

As a council member, Besse has consistently backed the city's efforts to renovate Union Station near Winston-Salem State University to reintroduce rail service to the Twin City. And Besse was the most vocal advocate on council for investment in a streetcar system to stimulate commercial development and provide a link an attractive transit link from downtown to WSSU and Hanes Mall in 2012, although the majority ultimately decided against a bond referendum considering the precarious state of the budget.

So it's a bit ironic that Besse has found himself at odds with Occupy Winston-Salem, first on the group's right to public assembly and now through his opposition to a resolution by city council calling on the US Congress to amend the Constitution to deny corporations the rights of natural persons. He told me in an e-mail today that he reached out to his fellow council members last week to share some information that he believes they ought to consider before moving forward, and that he's sensitive that his stance puts him "at risk of being misunderstood as anti-progressive."

Besse said he has taken a consistent position that city councils should limit their actions to matters that directly affect their mandated responsibilities. 

"Either we end up taking policy stances on issues on which we're poorly informed, or we have to put a great deal of research and development into topics on which we can effectively do nothing," he told me.

Besse told his fellow council members, City Manager Lee Garrity and City Attorney Angela Carmon that, putting aside whether this is a matter that should be consuming the council's attention, there are reasons for progressives to be cautious about endorsing an amendment to the Constitution to deny corporations the rights of personhood.

"The concept we are being asked to endorse on behalf of the city of Winston-Salem is a US constitutional amendment to make a broad-ranging change in the legal status of all corporations," he said. "That change involves key legal implications that go far beyond the campaign finance issues addressed in the Citizens United case."

As a reference to progressive arguments against a constitutional amendment, Besse provided links to an article by Kent Greenfield in the Huffington Post and one by Garrett Epps in the American Prospect.

Take-away from Greenfield:

Many cases important to progressive ideals were brought by groups, associations and corporations, not by natural persons. The case that saved Roe v. Wade in 1992 was Planned Parenthood v. Casey. NAACP v. Button was a crucial case to the civil rights movement. When Nixon wanted to quash the publication of the Pentagon Papers, it was the New York Times that fought to protect the public's right to know, in New York Times v. United States.  Rumsfeld v. FAIR, a case that challenged the Pentagon on Don't Ask Don't Tell, was brought by a non-profit corporation (which I founded and led), which had as its members other non-natural "persons" (universities, law schools and law school faculties).

Besse also posts a link to an NPR interview with John Witt, a professor of law and history at Yale University, who says this:

I don't think we'd want to end corporate personhood in the sense that ordinary people, including people in the Occupy Wall Street movement, may want to get together and form groups, which should have respect of the legal process. What we might want to do, and this is what the Occupy Wall Street folks have right, is recognize the different characteristic features of large groups invested with powerful amounts of capital in our political process.

The legal doctrine establishing corporate personhood is widely considered to go back to the Supreme Court's decision in Santa Clara County  v. Southern Pacific Railroad in 1886. Witt told NPR's Melissa Block that corporations are considered "metaphysical persons," meaning persons for some purposes but not for others.

"For example, a corporation can be prosecuted for a crime, which is something that usually only persons can be prosecuted for," Witt said. "But on the other hand, corporations get rights. They get rights to contract. They can't marry or run for office, but they can speak."

Besse said he expects his colleague, Councilman James Taylor Jr., to bring a resolution against corporate personhood up for a vote by council on Jan. 21.

"From a practical standpoint, there is also the question of whether a constitutional amendment is the most effective way to pursue change in this arena," Besse told his fellow council members. "My personal view is that it is not, given the rarity and extreme difficulty of success. Personally, I think the only realistic prospect for change in this area will come from new appointments to the Supreme Court who choose to return to a century of prior precedent in the area of campaign finance law — prior court decisions were precipitously overset by the Citizens United decision."

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