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Richard C. Leone Headshot

Corporate Personhood: How Far Does the Rabbit Hole Go?

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As the frenzied political campaigns grind on, one set of winners is already clear: wealthy contributors and politically active corporations. Because of the new rules of the game, 2012 is already on pace to be a record year in terms of campaign expenditures. A great deal of this boom in political spending has been made possible by recent Supreme Court decisions that struck down the limits on campaign contributions from individuals to so-called super PACs and other "independent organizations created to support specific candidates.

Another Court decision, even more disturbing, erased the long established ban on corporate spending and contributions to influence the outcome of the elections. This double whammy means that candidates for Congress as well as the presidency will find themselves heavily dependent on fund raising success involving direct expenditures by companies. And, what will these new wellsprings of money expect to get in return for their largess? You can bet it will be more than a handshake.

Who knows? In the case of corporations one can imagine an even more personal agenda. Start with the fact that the Supreme Court has affirmed unequivocally that corporations, even those that operate out of a post office box in the Cayman Islands, are persons. And in general, the Court has ruled that that they are endowed with certain "inalienable" rights, like free speech.

The practical effect of these decisions means, in effect, that companies can spend as much as they want to influence the outcomes of political campaigns without necessarily disclosing (apparently to that class of their fellow persons who walk on two legs) any of their gifts publicly. These changes set the stage for a powerful addition to the role corporations may play in American life. The Court hasn't specifically ruled on whether this blanket protection of corporate free speech means that "truth in advertising" restrictions on corporate claims are now defunct. One person's sales pitch may be another's dangerous lie, but they can both be an exercise in free speech.

Of course, none of this answers the question of who is speaking when a corporation -- behaving like a "person" -- makes political noises. Some strict constructionists might argue that corporate speech is more akin to that of ventriloquist dummies. Some human-type person is pulling the strings, writing the script, drafting the press releases, signing the checks, etc. But in the eyes of the Court, it appears that corporations have some sort of independent existence of their own -- a quality that entitles them to the protections afforded to human beings. (Other animals, it should be noted do not enjoy this status -- at least not yet.) The Court does have an important, if unintentional, point to make in this regard: Put simply, you'd have to be naive not to understand that corporation executives are pulling many of the strings in 21st century America

But have the majority of the Justices gone far enough? If corporations are truly persons, shouldn't they be empowered to do all the things that other "persons" can do? For example, why not give them the right to marry each other. Oh, you may say, they have that already, though in their case it's called a merger. Still if you can't call it marriage, is it full equality? And while conservatives may be alarmed at the prospect of marriage equality for corporations, there is a bright side of to the story. After all, fundamentalists can take solace from the fact that there seems to be general agreement that corporations attain full person status at the instant the papers are signed.

Will corporations get all the rights that personhood implies? It's hard to say; only one thing is certain, they won't have any trouble raising the money for campaigns to approve the corporate equality agenda, whatever it turns out to be.

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