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November 29, 2011
Grassroots Support Grows for Constitutional Amendment on Corporate Personhood
    by Robert Kropp

The founders of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream help launch Business for Democracy, and Move to Amend supports a constitutional amendment ending "legal fiction" of corporate personhood.

The efforts to counter the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision are occurring on a number of fronts, as a range of stakeholders seek to reverse the potential damage of a ruling that granted corporations the rights of individuals. The controversial notion of corporate personhood allows corporations to pour unlimited amounts of money into the electoral process and lobbying; sustainable investors and other key stakeholders recognize the danger to the democratic process and are taking steps to limit that danger.

Although it has been in existence since 2003, the Center for Political Accountability (CPA) has stepped up its engagement with companies on disclosure and board oversight of political spending. More than half of S&P 100 companies now disclose their policies on the issue.

An influential group of securities law experts petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in August, asking it to require public companies to disclose their political spending policies. A number of institutional investors, including members of the Council of Institutional Investors (CII) and the International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN), followed with expressions of support for the petition.

And as unlikely as its success might seem, especially in such a partisan political climate, grassroots support for a constitutional amendment reversing the Citizens United decision is growing. One of several organizations that have taken up the cause is Move To Amend, whose proposed amendment seeks to return the rights protected by the Constitution to natural persons only, and prevent the judiciary from ruling that spending money to influence elections is speech under the First Amendment.

In an interview on Vermont Public Radio (VPR), David Cobb of Move To Amend said, "Corporate personhood is a court-created legal doctrine that says corporations are not just businesses but also persons with inalienable, inherent rights. It allows corporate lawyers to overturn democratically enacted laws."

Cobb was the 2004 Green Party candidate for President.

Noting that 80% of Americans oppose Citizens United, he continued, "There are two legal doctrines at play in Citizens United. One is corporate personhood, and the other is the idea that money is speech. But it should be appropriate that local, state, and federal governments write the laws to have transparent elections in this country."

Also interviewed on the program were Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Cohen and Greenfield were part of a group that launched Business for Democracy in January. Describing Citizens United as "an affront to our democracy," the organization explicitly seeks to reverse the decision through a constitutional amendment.

Business leaders who have already signed the organization's Free Speech for People statement include representatives from Calvert Investments, Domini Social Investments, and Trillium Asset Management, among others.

On VPR, Greenfield said, "It's the biggest issue facing our democracy. We're at a crisis point where corporations control so much, from elections through campaign contributions to legislation through lobbying."

Of course, the challenges to passing a constitutional amendment are considerable. The bill must first pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds majority, and then be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Considering that most members of Congress profit by the status quo, the likelihood of support for an amendment at the threshold required seems remote.

However, as Greenfield said, "The process is a high hurdle, and it should be that way to change the Constitution. But the Constitution has been changed 27 times in our country's history. We will be on the wrong side of history if we don't make a constitutional amendment to change this."

A mere few months ago, the hurdles would have seemed impossible to surmount. But since then, the Occupy Movement has changed ideas about the potential for grassroots action, and encouraged organizations such as Move To Amend in their efforts to gather support.

Cohen said, "When the Occupy Wall Street movement came around, I thought this is what's needed to create the broad-based, grassroots groundswell necessary for passing a constitutional amendment."

And Cobb added, "The political culture is shifting, and what we have to do is politicize this issue to the point where people who are running for political office support a constitutional amendment. This is a litmus test, there's no doubt about it."

Furthermore, as Jennifer Taub of Vermont Law School pointed out in the VPR interview, Business for Democracy is not the only coalition of businesses supporting strong measures to reverse the effects of Citizens United. In advance of the 2012 elections, the Committee for Economic Development (CED) announced that it is forming a coalition of corporate leaders, "united in their determination to blunt the effects of Citizens United and relieve the enormous political pressure exerted on corporations and executives to spend on political campaigns, which diverts precious resources from jobs and other core business functions."

Greenfield noted that in January, Vermont became the first state to introduce a resolution proposing "an amendment to the United States Constitution ... which provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States."

"When people see how many hundreds of millions of dollars are going to be spent in the next election, they're going to be outraged," he said.


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