Sunday, January 6, 2019

Book Review: 'We the Corporations' by Adam Winkler

Intellectual Dishonesty Shaping The Country

It is endlessly entertaining to examine Supreme Court decisions, to follow the logic and often the prejudice and corruption they comprise. We The Corporations selectively follows the tribulations of the 14th amendment, designed specifically to prevent discrimination among the newly freed slaves following the Civil War. Corporations immediately overtook it, claiming it was meant for them. The results have been dispiriting to say the least. Between 1868 and 1912, of 604 14th amendment cases, only 28 were on behalf of blacks, and most of them lost. Corporations on the other hand, began an endless winning streak, culminating in the execrable Citizens United decision that has allowed companies to buy election issues, and of course, candidates.

The evidence shows that corporate constitutional rights as persons is a lie. Corporations have pummeled the courts with suits claiming natural person rights, and have won enough victories to make it law. Along the way, corrupt and incompetent justices have attributed rights to them that do not exist, while corporate lawyers have interpreted the constitution to make it seem the founders had always intended to put corporations on an equal footing with people. It is not so, says Adam Winkler in this engrossing book. 

Corporations successfully argue that they have no race or religion when it suits them, and also that stockholders’ race or religion exempts the firms from laws they don’t like. Piercing the corporate veil to claim the stockholders control in cases where it is beneficial, while claiming the corporation is an artificial construct of law where no humans control (for example when prison beckons). That corporations have the sole goal of making money for stockholders, but also that corporations have unlimited funds for political races without regard to stockholders.

The Roscoe Conkling case is particularly instructive. Conkling was on the committee that drafted the 14th amendment. Later, representing Southern Pacific Railroad, and after all the other drafting committee members had died, Conkling told the Supreme Court he had the official notes of the committee’s deliberations, and they said the intent was always to extend person rights to companies. Without anyone to refute these claims, and apparently without anyone ever examining the notes, the Supreme Court bought it – hook, line and sinker. Later examination showed the notes intimated no such thing, and neither did the wording of the amendment, nor any of the deliberations across the country at the time of debate, hearings and passage. But the law of the land changed to accommodate this lie. Conkling’s professional descendants in the US Chamber of Commerce claim to win 70% of the corporate rights cases they bring to the Supreme Court.
It all leads sadly to Citizens United, in which corporations got not just 14th amendment rights, but first amendment rights – everything but the vote itself. The Roberts court shamed itself and in particular Chief Justice Roberts himself. Roberts had promised to be a minimalist, delivering narrow, incremental decisions that didn’t overreach. But in Citizens United, he expanded the minor claim that a film with a small corporate contribution could be shown during the election – to broadly encompass unfettered corporate free speech, unlimited cash contributions, plus the overturning of previous precedents, none of which were sought in the matter. The country cried Shame, with 80% disagreeing that corporations should be totally free to spend on politics at will. Winkler says Citizens United was not a product of the Roberts court so much as the culmination of “a two hundred year struggle” by business to have it all ways.

What is striking is that mere mortals can easily see where the Supreme Court went off the rails, yet the decisions stand. In lieu of common sense, politics prevails. Personal prejudices and agendas beat the constitution. Contradictions allow for any kind of interpretation that favors corporations. And lawyers and judges continue to cite case law incorrectly. The insiders know it is all wrong. Winkler quotes Delaware (with the most lenient corporate laws in the country) Chancery Judge Leo Strine that a corporation “is a distinct entity that is legally separated from its stockholders, managers and creditors. That is the whole point of corporate law, after all.” Unless you’re a Supreme Court justice, it seems.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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