From Taxing Railroads to Buying Elections

Today marks the 125th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, a landmark case which was interpreted to confer “personhood” on corporations, thus extending the right to equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, which was previously afforded only to individuals. Throughout the next century, the rights of corporations have significantly expanded, and now, thanks to Citizen’s United, include the ability to make almost unlimited political contributions as an expression of free speech.

“In the last 125 years, the concept of corporate personhood has reached ridiculous extremes,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president at People For the American Way. “Increasingly our laws and our Constitution are being bent to favor the interests of powerful corporations instead of the rights of ordinary Americans. The Supreme Court’s shocking decision in Citizens United put a ‘for sale’ sign on our democracy, allowing unlimited funds to be spent from corporate treasuries to influence our elections, and the American people are paying the price.”

“The Constitution should serve to advance the interests of We, the People, not giant corporations,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company has come to stand for the proposition that corporations are presumptively entitled to the same constitutional rights as humans. The doctrine has corroded our democracy, most stunningly in the 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend whatever they like to influence election outcomes. Rescuing our constitutional democracy requires reestablishing the principle that corporations are the creations—and subordinates—of We, the People.”

Citizens United is the Santa Clara of our time,” said Jeff Clements, general counsel for Free Speech For People. “Past generations of Americans came together across party and ideological divides to take on corporate power to amend the Constitution to reverse corporate-dominated Supreme Court decisions: to end corporate corruption of the appointment of U.S. Senators and to require direct election to the Senate, and to overturn a corporate Supreme Court that said Americans cannot have a progressive income tax. To take on today's threats on our republican democracy, we must come together again to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and to protect people's rights, not corporate rights.”

“The current U.S. Supreme Court arrogantly dictated that corporations have a constitutional 'right' to spend unlimited money influencing our elections, basing this edict on a deeply flawed decision from over a century ago," said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. “In the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company case, a group of activist judges granted rights to for-profit corporations that were put into the Constitution after the Civil War to protect newly freed slaves, not railroads and robber barons.  The five politicians in judicial robes given lifetime jobs on our highest court by Presidents George W. Bush, his dad, and Reagan have now given the richest corporations in the world fundamental First Amendment rights that were supposed to protect the human rights of citizens in our democracy.  Their dictate will be over-ruled."

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