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Begich, Kawasaki: Corporations should not influence elections

Posted: January 9, 2012 - 1:03am

Two of Alaska’s lawmakers are not taking kindly to corporate influence on public elections.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich co-signed a constitutional amendment that rescinds years of legal precedent finding corporations have many of the same rights as a legal person. These rights include the right to speak or not speak, enter into contracts and advertise products, according to the Columbia Law Review. Corporations traditionally have been banned from voting, running for office or owning guns.

With the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision in the fall of 2009, corporations gained the right to donate money to politicians and political parties.

Begich co-signed the Saving of American Democracy Amendment with Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I co-sponsored both the Sanders constitutional amendment and an earlier version introduced by 18 senators because I believe in a level playing field when it comes to elections and campaign donations,” Begich said. “The Citizens United case gave too much power to for-profit corporations and sets up the possibility of huge corporate contributions. One way to equalize this balance of power is to make it clear for-profit corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as people. That’s what the Sanders resolution proposes.”

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts found that Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, had the right to air a movie about Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary season in 2008. The ruling was 5 to 4 in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission.

According to a Begich fact sheet, the “Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave corporations the ability to drown out the will of the people by using the profits in their general treasury funds to influence elections. Now, corporations can use millions of dollars to defeat candidates that may threaten their bottom line. Everyday Americans simply cannot compete with the virtually limitless resources of corporations.”

Efforts to curb corporate influence have taken root in Alaska as well.

Corporations are not “persons” Kawasaki says in his House Bill 224 and should be barred from participation in elections. His bill, released Jan. 6, provides that “for-profit corporations and limited liability companies organized in this state are not persons for purposes of influencing the outcomes of public office elections, initiatives, referendums, or recalls.”

The idea of corporate personhood is believed to have taken hold when an amendment to the constitution written to help freed slaves was extended to corporations. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, according to the U.S. Library of Congress, was ratified on July 9, 1868, and “granted citizenship to ‘all persons born or naturalized in the United States,’ which included former slaves recently freed. In addition, it forbids states from denying any person ‘life, liberty or property, without due process of law’ or to ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’”

The Supreme Court decision Santa Clara Co. v. Southern Pac. R.R. extended these protections to corporations in 1886.

“These decisions, whether right or wrong, sound or unsound, may have changed the course of our industrial history. Corporations were now armed with constitutional prerogatives. And so armed, they proceeded to the development and exploitation of a continent,” William O. Douglas wrote in the Columbia Law Review. Subsequent legal decisions and stare decisis have strengthened the rights of corporations as persons. Culminating in the Citizens United case.

Stare decisis is legal precedent. Judges look to past rulings for guidance.

Stare decisis serves to take the capricious element out of law and to give stability to a society. It is a strong tie which the future has to the past,” Douglas wrote.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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