On the one year anniversary of the Citizens United decision Vermont lawmakers introduced a measure to revoke the granting of personhood rights to U.S. corporations. It’s a calculated push back against a particular strain of 14th Amendment jurisprudence and raises some interesting questions.
The idea of corporate personhood is a fairly well-established point–see, for example, Metropolitan Life Ins. Co v. Ward which engrained the idea that corporations are “persons” for purposes of 14th Amendment analysis. But a “person” for purposes of 14th Amendment analysis is not the same thing as a “citizen”. That might seem like a fine point important only to lawyers, but the implication is that corporations do not typically enjoy the privileges and immunities afforded citizens (Western and Southern Life Ins. Co. v. State Bd. of Equalization of California.)
This point got completely confused as a result of the Citizens United decision which held that, as a result of corporate personhood status via the 14th Amendment, corporations also enjoy First Amendment protections and can therefore spend unrestricted amounts of money as political speech.
States that have pushed back against this influence have typically done so by tightening corporate disclosure laws, essentially forcing “daylight” into the books so that shareholders and consumers know which candidates receive the largesse of a particular corporation. As witnessed with the campaign against Target, for example, those disclosure laws have success in whipping up outrage but perhaps
Vermont’s tactic is unusual in that it goes right to the heart of the legal fiction of corporate personhood. If it is successful it will likely face legal challenge and run right up against the supremacy clause. But forcing the issue is important, especially given the exuberance of the Roberts Court with regards to corporate interests at the expense of all else. And if other states follow suit we could be witnessing the beginning of a campaign for constitutional change that has some legs.
photo courtesy of dougtone via Flickr