January 02, 2007

Corporations and Persons

This is really quite the story. For several years now, a bunch of towns in rural Pennsylvania have been passing various "anti-sludge" laws to prevent corporations from dumping toxic waste all over their fields. This includes bans on companies with previous environmental violations from operating in town, and laws requiring companies to test their waste for safety. Well, businesses weren't too pleased, and some of them sued, arguing that the laws violated their rights to "equal protection, due process... and rights guaranteed under the commerce clause."

In return, the townships of Licking and Porter did something rather radical, passing a town ordinance stripping corporations of their personhood. Bam! "Corporations shall not be considered to be 'persons' protected by the Constitution of the United States." As Barry Yeoman notes, the Supreme Court has recognized these protections for well over a century:
In the landmark 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific, a railroad company refused to pay a special county tax in California, arguing (much as sludge hauler Synagro would do in Pennsylvania more than a century later) that to treat it differently from everyone else violated its constitutional rights. Speaking from the bench, Chief Justice Morrison Waite announced, "The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the 14th Amendment… applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does."

After Santa Clara, federal judges began granting more and more rights to nonliving "persons." In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that the Pennsylvania Coal Co. was entitled to "just compensation" under the Fifth Amendment because a state law, designed to keep houses from collapsing as mining companies tunneled under them, limited how much coal it could extract. In 1967 and 1978, businesses prevailed in Supreme Court cases citing the search-and-seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment as protection against fire and workplace safety inspections.

Corporate lawyers have also taken a shine to the First Amendment. In 1978, the Supreme Court agreed with corporations claiming that the state could not limit their political spending in an antitax campaign. Almost two decades later, a federal appellate court struck down a Vermont law requiring that milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone be so labeled. Dairy producers had a First Amendment right "not to speak," the court said. In California, Nike invoked the First Amendment to fight a lawsuit arguing that the company's public relations materials misrepresented sweatshop labor conditions.
Honestly, I don't really know the ins and outs of this issue. It's plausible that stripping corporations of all their constitutional 'rights' would lead to some serious headaches. On the other hand, it's a gross injustice when a town can't even require sludge-dumping corporations from testing their toxic waste to make sure kids who ride their bikes through the local fields don't get sick. Either way, the finer points aren't up for debate at the moment. The Licking and Porter ordinances don't stand a chance in the courts. The Supreme Court certainly isn't going to overturn Santa Clara anytime soon.

So what's the point? Activists are hoping that these anti-personhood ordinances will generate further discussion, and prompt more grassroots organizing and local lawmaking, and hopefully, one day, create pressure for changes to state constitutions. Maybe even the federal one. It's all very much thinking about the long run. But it's not entirely quixotic. Already, according to Yeoman, Democratic parties of Maine, New Hampshire, and Washington have passed resolutions opposing corporate personhood. It's a start, at least.
-- Brad Plumer 10:19 PM || ||