Habeas Corporus

As of today, in a landmark 5-4 ruling by our Supreme Court, corporations have the right, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to spend an unlimited amount of money on ads to support a candidate for office. Essentially, I am free to pay my $50 or $100 to support my candidate, while Citigroup or Exxon Mobil are free to spend their $500,000,000 on the opposing candidate.

For a long time now, human citizens have had an unfair advantage over these poor corporate entities. But this new ruling levels the playing field, permitting a gargantuan money-making machine trying to support its need for profit to compete fairly with individuals who push all sorts of personal and selfish agendas, like a reasonable education for their kids, air that doesn’t eat into everyone’s lungs, and water that’s clean enough not to lower children’s IQ scores by ten or twenty points.

Some people are saying that these selfish individual citizens should continue to lord it over hapless behemoths like Wal-Mart and Bank of America. But in a stirring example of judicial activism at work (some people, like my friend Troy, don’t like judicial activism, but what can you do?) the High Court’s majority has taken power back from such annoying individuals, and given it to giant synthetically constructed entities, where it belongs.

After all, isn’t it a little silly in the twenty first century to think that our elected leaders should be beholden only to those interests that actually reside in our own country? Multinational corporations have needs too, including the needs of their shareholders in places like Romania and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

If the legitimate needs of those shareholders are not being adequately addressed by a candidate for U.S. Senate or, say, the U.S. Presidency, clearly it’s only fair to give that corporation the opportunity to spend a few billion dollars to flood our TVs and other media with non-stop highly polished advertisements featuring beloved actors and top directing talent, so they can state their case. What candidate in his right mind would dare resist such a juggernaut of First Amendment expression at its finest?

Yet one thing continues to confuse me, as our society marches forward into the future, where a corporation can finally be treated under the law like any other citizen. And that is the question of Habeas Corpus — or, as it should more properly be called from now on, Habeas Corporus.

In order to properly discuss this issue, we probably need some new language to distinguish these new kinds of citizens. I propose that we henceforth refer to them as “paper people”. I mean, under the first amendment they are real people, legally, just like you and I, only they are constructed of paper, rather than meat.

And just as logically, we should collectively refer to the older variety of persons — the kind that eat and sweat and perform various other unsightly bodily functions — as “meat people”.

Back to Habeas Corporus. Suppose (to take a random example), Wal-Mart has a little too much to drink one night (who hasn’t been there, right?) and ends up getting thrown in jail. So now you have a major corporation (sorry – a paper person) forced to spend the night locked in some local hoosegow with drifters, lowlifes and other assorted meat people. Who is going to protect Wal-Mart’s rights? Where is the Habeas Corporus?

There is so much uncharted territory here. Can the R.J. Reynolds Corporation be imprisoned for smoking indoors? If AT&T gets put in jail, is it entitled to a phone call? And just how many days in the slammer should General Motors get for driving without a license?

There’s just one thing I still can’t figure out — not to put too fine a point on it, or in any way denigrate a corporate citizen’s right to be treated like any other free individual in this great nation of ours. How do you fit a corporation in a jail cell?

3 thoughts on “Habeas Corporus

  1. Lets take it up a notch… if an industrial corporation knowingly pollutes a region with deadly toxic waste (I know, it’s a stretch), and a very statistically significant number of the hapless locals are poisoned and die as a result, and said hypothetical sentient corporation demonstrably hides evidence of the consequences of it’s action but eventually gets undeniably fingered by a feisty lawyer in court, what are the chances that said “paper person” who is guilty of hundreds or even thousands of counts of first degree murder, will face the death penalty?

    Wouldn’t it be cool if a “meat person” could simply change his/her name and legally get away with murder? Or out of paying parking tickets? And if the worst penalty a “meat person” could ever pay was a financial assessment, would each of the mega-billionaire Walton heirs be, de facto, completely above the law?

    It’s important to remember that a big corporation is not a person, but a large collection of people, each of whom have to some degree a sense of immunity because they are faceless, anonymous parts of a group, free from individual responsibility. A corporation has no conscience. No, not even Google. Though some are worse than others.

    Not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar myself, but to my knowledge there is no reference in the actual constitution that defines the identity of a corporation (at least up until today) as identical to a “meat” individual. I guess that’s what “judicial activism” means. Correct me if I’m wrong, but corporate identity is probably therefore not a constitutional issue.

    There is something about growing up in the gray tumult of NYC that trains us to look for and appreciate the unique, the hidden and as yet undiscovered. That’s our definition of “cool”. We learn to love history. We learn to seek the small over the large. We come to appreciate the momentary solitude of the arcane, of the individual proprietor owned businesses, of discovery of the hidden gems and hideaways. We acquire a general distrust of developers and of pervasive homogenizing corporate influence. We love the Village espresso joint, the tiny side street boutique, the corner cafe; Corporate coffee, TGI Friday’s and the Gap, not so much. At least, that’s how it was for me. And so I have long carried a deep suspicion of corporate influence down inside.

    Events of the last few days have shown that this lifelong distaste for corporate culture has been well founded. This supreme court ruling comes at a particularly odiferous juncture, when it has become apparent that corporate interests have successfully bought our representatives and turned “health care reform” upside down and inside out, into corporate welfare at the expense of, instead of for the benefit of, the people. Corporations have managed to take a good and necessary idea and turn it on it’s head.

    It is my understanding that the definition of “fascism” is a condition where corporations hold ultimate power. Maybe that explains how it is that we are where we are now.

    There is the parable about the frog in hot water over the fire. The temperature of the water goes up incrementally, degree by degree, and the frog never notices the change… until it is too late.

    Our President, on whom a strong majority pinned their hopes, appears to be a paper tiger, or worse, a corporatist in individual clothing. Republican lite. Most of the other leaders of the Democratic party look no better. While holding the strongest hand imaginable, thanks to the voters, they have totally rolled over, and are essentially pushing a Republican health bill with a Democratic label slapped on it. If and when it passes, with zero Republican votes, the Democrats will be eviscerated by the voters. Score another victory for the corporatists.

    Some people are more self directed and less subject to propaganda. How can the rest be inoculated against the money that buys advertising? How are core values planted? Is it education? Could the answer be in the freedom of the internet? How can the power of money to influence minds be mitigated?

    Does anyone else appreciate the ironic fact that billion dollar earning “Avatar”, with it’s green message of appreciation of indigenous cultures, has made the News Corporation of Ruppert Murdoch even wealthier?

    Since Reagan, government has been vilified as an incompetent intruder. But government is the only force left that is large enough to keep the corporations in check. I hope some representatives wake up before the temperature gets too high, and there is no turning back.

  2. Two points:

    (1) I agree with the sentiment of the post, but from the little I read it sounded as if the alternative to this ruling was to allow the government the censor US citizens. (The “Hilary” movie, specifically.) Since individuals exercise their 1st amendment rights “through” corporations (a newspaper publishes my letter, a publisher my book, a radio station broadcasts my phone call, …) aren’t corporations contributing already and wouldn’t this allow your government to restrict your free speech? I’m not sure about this argument, but it seems to me that the issue is more complicated than it appears.

    (2) Corporations are already known as “juristic persons”. The personhood of corporations is one of the biggest mistakes ever made (around the turn of the 20’th century). They have some of the rights of “human” people (they are legally citizens, for example) but also only some of the responsibilities. The post did not mention the inhumane (excuse the expression) injustice of prohibiting these large citizens from running for office. They would be well-suited: they already have the capital to fund a major campaign and they have vast experience in management.

    “And now greet your new commander-in-chief, President Exxon-Mobil!”

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