Personal Politics

San Francisco may become the first major US city to challenge corporate personhood — a 117-year-old concept that gives corporations the same constitutional rights as human beings. Matt Gonzalez, president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, has agreed to introduce a board resolution that makes the case for ending corporations’ legal status as “persons” through a US Supreme Court decision or a constitutional amendment.
The resolution, Gonzalez says, will convey that “we think corporate personhood doesn’t work, that it’s a misinterpretation of the Constitution. We think the courts should revisit it because it’s bad public policy.”
Corporate personhood, born of a late-19th century Supreme Court case, has allowed corporations to defend campaign contributions and lobbying on First Amendment grounds and to use the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to violate the Clean Water Act with impunity.
A public campaign to support the resolution will be launched in “late spring” according to Gonzalez’ office. Proponents will also ask state representatives to introduce an initiative to abolish corporate personhood in California.
San Francisco’s resolution — along with one passed in the north coast town of Point Arena and others planned for Arcata and for Sedona, Arizona — is a symbolic measure that simply indicates opposition to the concept. But two Pennsylvania townships have taken the movement one step further: In December 2002, officials of Porter Township passed the first law ever to remove the constitutional rights of corporations. On March 12, Licking Township passed a similar ordinance.
These ordinances, says Thomas Linzey, of the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, are part of a multi-year regional strategy to challenge corporate personhood in the courts. He hopes a corporation will claim a constitutional privilege, causing one of these towns to use its anti-corporate personhood ordinance to deny it, and this “will set up the test case in the US Supreme Court that we’re looking for, five or six years down the road.”

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