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Haines takes stand against 'corporate personhood'

Posted: October 7, 2013 - 12:00am

JUNEAU — Residents of the southeast Alaska community of Haines have taken a stand against “corporate personhood,” the legal concept that gives corporations rights like those of an individual.

Voters approved an amendment to the local charter preamble and bill of rights saying constitutional rights and those set out by the charter are guaranteed only to people — not to “artificial entities.”

This and similar efforts around the country are aimed at addressing a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations, unions and others to raise and spend unlimited campaign funds provided they don’t work directly with a candidate.

Supporters of Haines’ Proposition 1 hope last Tuesday’s vote will encourage other communities to follow suit and lead to a groundswell that state legislatures and Congress won’t be able to ignore. Critics worry it could leave the borough vulnerable to a lawsuit.

Unofficial results from last week’s election showed Proposition 1 winning 546-416, with the potential for 49 additional ballots to still be counted.

Gershon Cohen is a member of We The People, Haines, the group behind the proposal. He said the group felt this was an issue that should be discussed within the community. He said it is not an attack on corporations or businesses but merely a stated belief “that constitutional rights should only apply to individual human beings.”

He acknowledged this is a small step and “a lot of democracy” would still have to happen for it to have much of an impact, including the enactment of an ordinance.

Recent efforts by state legislators have gone nowhere, and a Democratic-led resolution during the last session urging Congress and the president to work on an amendment to the U.S. Constitution barring unlimited campaign spending by corporations, unions and other groups also stalled.

If enough communities follow Haines, it could lead to Alaska and other states taking a stand, and it could possibly lead to test cases in court, Cohen said. He sees this as a shorter path to the goal than an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Haines Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Mulford said the chamber voted to oppose Proposition 1 because it affected all corporations and the chamber believed “this is a battle that should be fought on a state or national level, not locally.”

Mulford said in an email that there are many unknowns, as well, including potential exposure to litigation.

“The Chamber hopes that the message of reducing corporate influence on our electoral process is received, without any financial repercussions to the community of Haines,” she said.

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