Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Florida Rep. Ted Deutch introduced aconstitutional amendmentin December to overturnCitizens United, one of five decisions since 2006 by which a closely divided Supreme Court vastly increased the amount of corrupting corporate money in elections. In an opinion piece critical of the decision in Citizens United, Senator Sanders wrote:
When the Supreme Court says that for purposes of the First Amendment, corporations are people, that writing checks from the company’s bank account is constitutionally-protected speech and that attempts by the federal government and states to impose reasonable restrictions on campaign ads are unconstitutional, when that occurs, our democracy is in grave danger.
The joint Sanders-Deutch Resolution proposes an amendment to the constitution “to expressly exclude for-profit corporations from the rights given to natural persons.”
The first section of the amendment states:
The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, or other private entities established for business purposes or to promote business interests under the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state.
While Senator Sanders and Representative Deutch correctly characterize the danger to democracy and the need for strong action in response, a close reading of Citizens United shows that constitutional rights of corporations played no role whatsoever in the Citizens United decision.
The incorrect – but widely held – reading of Citizens United is that the corruption of elections arose fundamentally because the Supreme Court adopted a legal doctrine of corporate “personhood” which endowed corporations with First Amendment free speech rights, which, combined with the notion that spending money to promote a candidate is a form of speech, gives corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of their money in elections. This incorrect reading of Citizens United is compounded by the further error that a constitutional amendment is necessary and sufficient to remove those corporate constitutional rights and to remove corporate money from elections, or could prevent the pro-corporate majority on the Supreme Court from making further decisions corrupting elections.