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Corporations are people? DFL can’t even muster votes to protest

MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Nowhere is the difficulty more clear than in the Minnesota House, where partisanship, fear and apathy have blocked Rep. Ray Dehn’s proposal merely asking the U.S. Congress to support an amendment.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people when it comes to speech. 

The Citizens United ruling, buttressed by the Supreme’s recent McCutcheon decision, opened the floodgates for ever-more money to pour into elections. But it also inspired organizations nationwide to counter the court’s 5-4 decision with a constitutional amendment that essentially would end “corporate personhood.’’

The fight-back effort underscores how difficult it is to amend the Constitution.

Nowhere is the difficulty more clear than in the Minnesota House, where partisanship, fear and apathy have blocked Rep. Ray Dehn’s proposal merely asking the U.S. Congress to support an amendment.

Last year, the Minnesota Senate supported a stronger measure calling for a Constitutional convention. But last week, when the Minneapolis DFLer counted noses in his caucus, he came up about 10 votes short.

“I haven’t totally given up,’’ said Dehn. “I’ll keep talking to people. But, with only two weeks left in the session … .’’

An arduous journey

As Dehn discussed the dynamics last week, the Minnesota Wild hockey team was about to play its deciding playoff game against Colorado. The media was filled with stories, and chat lines, tweets, blogs, radio talk shows were crammed with hockey.

Millions of dollars impacting democracy? Ho hum.

“I understand the power of pro sports,’’ Dehn said. “You have the stresses of daily life, we’re coming out of a terrible recession; people need a place to relax, have fun. Pro sports have become the modern day form of release … .”

People such as Dehn and Roseville DFL Sen. John Marty have embarked on a long, arduous journey that seemingly has little chance of success. The great hope is that over time, a national movement builds that will demand a future Congress’s attention.

Time out for some basics civics: There are two ways to amend the Constitution. One requires that two-thirds of the U.S. House and Senate send an amendment to the states. The other process, which has never been used, requires that two-thirds of the states call a Constitutional Convention to draft an amendment. Either way, 75 percent of the states, through their legislatures, must approve the amendment.

The task is huge, which explains why there are only 27 amendments.

The amendment-by-convention approach would require 33 states to call a convention and 38 legislatures to approve it. In this “anti-corporate personhood’’ effort, 16 states have passed resolutions that would lead to an amendment that would overturn Citizens United.

Rep. Ray Dehn
Rep. Ray Dehn

Additionally, in most states that have passed resolutions, there has been bipartisan support. An amendment, it should be noted, would not only limit and better disclose corporate contributions, but also union money.

“I’m not sure why it’s become partisan here,’’ Dehn said. “I do know that ALEC (the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council) opposes. But there have to be other reasons as well.’’

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he doubts that any GOP members would support the resolution.

“I admire his [Dehn’s] passion,’’ Davids said, “but for now, the Supreme Court ruling is the law of the land. I think the best thing is to bring other cases forward [through the court process] and see how that goes.’’

Laughing, Davids added, “After what happened to us, I’m a little nervous about amendments in general.’’

He was referring to the GOP-inspired amendments opposing gay marriage and pushing voter IDs. Minnesotans rejected both, and many believe the GOP lost legislative majorities in the House and Senate over the efforts.

However, two states that have passed the resolution, Colorado and Montana, asked voters directly through the petition-and-referendum process. In both cases, the resolutions had huge public support, passing with more than 70 per cent of the vote.

DFL can’t back a weaker proposal

But of course, given its Minnesota legislative majority, the DFL could pass Dehn’s resolution, which to many would not seem all that controversial.

The resolution states, in part: “Clarifying that the rights protected under the Constitution are the rights of natural persons and not the rights of artificial entities and that spending money to influence elections is not speech under the First Amendment.’’

Unlike last year’s successful Minnesota Senate resolution, the House version would not call for a Constitutional convention if Congress doesn’t act.

Dehn eliminated the convention option because pols of both parties fear that convening such a session could fundamentally change the entire Constitution.

Essentially, then, Dehn is left with a “please’’ resolution to the currently gridlocked Congress. And still he can’t get the votes in his own caucus.

Some DFL legislators simply refuse to support any resolution, apparently believing such things are beneath their dignity. Others, in an election year, fear unintended controversy and union concerns. Others likely aren’t sure just what the resolution means.

Dehn, like Marty, is profoundly fearful of the influence of money in campaigns.

“The way we’re headed, we’re going to have about 80 families in this country determining the outcome of elections,’’ Dehn said.

The money even pours into Minnesota legislative races.

Under law, there’s supposed to be a $60,000 cap on how much money a candidate can raise in an election. Individuals can give no more than $1,000 to legislative candidates. Just $12,500 can be raised from “large donations” and from PACs and lobbyists.

Yet, Dehn said, there were legislative races in which more than $500,000 came pouring into districts from obscure sources. These were “independent expenditures,’’ typically in the form of attack ads. Those attacks, from both sides, have already begun showing up in mailboxes of voters in some competitive districts.

In national races, nearly $1 billion in independent expenditure money was spent in 2012, half of that in the presidential race.

“We are moving from a democracy to a plutocracy,’’ says Marty. “What we’re doing is a difficult effort. But many of us think our democracy is worth it.’’

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/06/2014 - 08:52 am.

    It Goes Both Ways

    If corporations now have the rights of and individual person, without reservation or limitation,…

    then it surely must follow that they also have the responsibilities of an individual person.

    It’s long past time that “limited liability” be removed from the legal reality of a corporation. It was that limitation of liability that was the reason the corporations ALSO had limited rights – rights which originally fell far short of the rights of individuals.

    Now that corporations have succeeded in wiping out the idea that their rights are limited, their liability,…

    and that of their governing boards, executives, and shareholders,…

    should be wiped out as well.

    It should now be possible to sue every member of a corporations board, it’s executives, and it’s shareholders, individually or as a group, for any damages done to an individual person by any part of that corporation.

    We can NOT continue to let our corporations have it both ways: having all the rights of an individual person, but NONE of the responsibilities.

    • Submitted by Mike Worcester on 05/06/2014 - 10:21 am.

      I Concur

      Well said!

      And as the current internet meme also notes: I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas (or Oklahoma) tries to execute one.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 05/06/2014 - 12:34 pm.

      I strongly agree

      Consider the benefits of removing the veil of impunity from corporate execs…

      No one will forget BP’s trashing of the Gulf of Mexico, first with oil, then with needlessly toxic chemicals to ‘make the problem go away.’ And now we have seafood that’s unsafe to eat, an intimidated population in the Gulf area, and a large population with health problems.

      Imagine if BP’s executives knew ahead of time that they would have to personally pay, with long jail sentences perhaps, for all of their negligent and reckless decisions.

      I’m willing to be that we’d see substantially fewer oil disasters (and less corporate irresponsibility in general).

      Instead, the current reality is the existence of class of obscenely paid quasi-royalty, in some ways objectively above the law, able to harm others and the environment with little to no accountability.

      By and large the Republicans see no problem here. The Democrats are too conservative and cowardly to do much about it.

  2. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 05/06/2014 - 09:16 am.

    What Greg Kapphan said

    So true, Greg. I agree with every word.

  3. Submitted by mark wallek on 05/06/2014 - 09:48 am.

    We’re not fools

    After betrayal by the court, and it was a betrayal of human citizens, let’s not be fooled by the democrats apparent inability to stand up for the human citizen voter. They want that payola as much as the republicans do, but they have to look like they don’t. It’s all about appearances in this nation. It’s never about substance anymore. We manage. We do not engage and resolve. What’s on cable tonite?

  4. Submitted by john herbert on 05/06/2014 - 10:46 am.

    We the people…

    No offense intended, but I believe Representative Dehn and Senator Franken do not fully comprehend the meaning of the First Amendment, which in relevant part reads:

    “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”

    Therefore it does not matter whether corporations are people or not. Additionally, the language of the proposed Amendment is so vague that we would spend decades just litigating what it actually means.

    I would rather that we the people get off of our couches and actually participate in governing and if we would rather watch a hockey game then we get the government that we deserve.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/06/2014 - 04:10 pm.

      We the humans

      A literal reading of the words “shall make no law” has never been accepted. Despite the very clear language of the First Amendment, our ability to speak has always been subject to limitation and regulation. In the case of corporations, legislators have determined that limiting their ability to campaign for or make contributions to candidates corrupts the political system too much (check the history of Montana for a case study). The need to ensure that the system is as clean as possible is a compelling state interest justifying the limitation on speech.

      “[I]f we would rather watch a hockey game then we get the government that we deserve.” Mike McFadden is counting on it.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 05/06/2014 - 11:22 am.

    And money is speech??

    If corporations enjoy all the rights of individuals (and few of the responsibilities,) and money is speech, and free speech cannot be limited even when it infringes on individuals’ rights to due process and equal protection, then why can’t corporations pay individuals to vote? In other words, it should be just fine to buy votes, right?

  6. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 05/06/2014 - 11:46 am.

    Technicality on constitutional amendments

    The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, or Prohibition, was repealed not by state legislatures, but by state ratifying conventions of elected people.

    It was feared the temperance lobby was too strong on a grassroots level, but if left to regular people it would pass easily.

    According to Wikipedia, the 21st Amendment was the only amendment ratified in such a way.

  7. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 05/06/2014 - 12:30 pm.

    If politicians can

    make laws governing how corporations conduct their business (i.e. rules and regulations), how could you deny their ability to politic for who they want making the laws?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/06/2014 - 04:02 pm.


      It isn’t a matter of who the corporations “want” making the laws. Corporations think and act only through humans. The corporation, being an artificial entity, doesn’t “want” anything. The question is who do the shareholders of the corporation want making the laws. Those shareholders are free to politic all they want.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 05/06/2014 - 04:14 pm.

      Because they already have those rights

      The stockholders and employees already hold and exercise those rights.

      • Submitted by Jim Halonen on 05/06/2014 - 04:55 pm.

        So what you are saying

        Is there is no reason for lobbyists or any special interest groups to lobby government, because everybody has that right already as an individual?

        • Submitted by Marc Post on 05/06/2014 - 06:31 pm.

          No, I’m not saying that. As people, stock holders and employees are free to join lobby and special interest groups. That’s what the framers of the constitution intended. It’s that whole “We the PEOPLE” thing. Rights are for people.

          Corporations are man made legal entities intended as a business to make money. They don’t walk, eat, bleed, talk or VOTE. Their stake holders and employees do.

          Are you saying special interest and lobbying groups are people too? I don’t think so. And I do think they have far, far too much power as it is. And yes, unions included.

  8. Submitted by Mike Downing on 05/06/2014 - 12:46 pm.

    Unions vs corporations

    It is very disingenuous and hypocritical to say political money from unions is OK but not OK from corporations.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 05/06/2014 - 01:26 pm.


      From the Article: “An amendment, it should be noted, would not only limit and better disclose corporate contributions, but also union money.”

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/06/2014 - 01:30 pm.

      Who did?

      Generally speaking you should read it this way, if taking money from corporations is A OK, what’s wrong with taking money from unions, aside from your ox being gored that is.

  9. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 05/06/2014 - 02:00 pm.

    Corporations and unions

    should have the same “rights” and responsibilities, but conservatives always throw the unions in as if there is some kind of balance. According to Open Secrets, business interests dominate, with an overall advantage over organized labor of about 15-to-1.
    Neither group should be able to contribute in the way Citizens United now allows–or in any way, for that matter.
    To get money out of politics is going to mean providing public money for campaigns and forbidding money coming from other sources. Dream on!

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/06/2014 - 03:31 pm.


      “To get money out of politics is going to mean providing public money for campaigns and forbidding money coming from other sources.”

      PLEASE encourage Al Franken run on this proposal, please!

    • Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 05/07/2014 - 11:03 pm.

      Union Money in Elections

      No way that is true. Check out in depth study done by Mpls Star-Trib; Union money and DFL-leaning money by FAR dominates political money in MN politics.

      And the Left’s favorite punching-bags–the Koch Bros, are WAY down this list of political contibutors.

      Most corporations DO NOT want to take a stand. Corp Execs donate to both sides (and favoring incumbents, in most cases), because they know they gotta be able to do business no matter who is in power.

      Citizens United resulted in barely a TRICKLE of corp-$$$. Why??? Just remember what happended to Target Corp when they donated to a PAC that donated money to…what was it…(maybe) anti-gay (was he REALLY??) Tom Emmer. They apologized, apologized, apologized. Got their head handed to them. And that is the way it is with most corps…HIGHLY risk-averse.

  10. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 05/06/2014 - 03:25 pm.

    Let’s not forget some of the broader political context…

    Did you see the recent study that found that the US should now more accurately be considered an oligarchy than a democracy?

    “Americans may like to think they live in a Democracy, but a new study suggests the opinions of a moneyed elite class are far more influential than those of the masses.

    The study, by professors at Northwestern and Princeton, found that policies supported by economic elites and business interest groups were far more likely to become law than those they opposed.

    It also found that the preferences of the middle class made essentially no difference to a bill’s fate.

    “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page wrote in the study, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

    While Gilens and Page call the state of the current political system “economic elite domination,” another term could also be used: Oligarchy, otherwise known as a system in which power rests with a small number of economically or politically advantaged people.”

    And, this is not because of union power and money.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/06/2014 - 04:14 pm.

      Then let’s just do away with the vote altogether?

      If the people’s vote has no meaning, let’s just do away with the nonsense of meaningless voting.

      Of course, if you balk at that idea, I guess that says we still have a democracy after all.

      • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 05/07/2014 - 09:25 am.

        It’s not either/or


        Surely you understand that things can have the appearance of something but in substance are rather empty and only weakly expressive of their original intent or purpose. For example, you may have a car, but in reality the car has four flat tires, heavily leaks oil, has no brakes, and needs a windshield. Technically you have a car, but since the car’s purpose is transportation, in it’s current state it’s useless for that purpose. You yourself bemoan what you believe to be the erosion of constitutional liberty, but on your own black and white reasoning, you don’t have a basis for complaining since we still have a constitution.

        Did you actually read the article or the research itself? If so, what did you find to be at fault?

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/06/2014 - 04:19 pm.

    Election year

    Ever notice how in election years, democrats start acting and sounding like republicans? Talking, no BRAGGING about tax cuts, avoiding any mention of big government programs (like Obamacare), etc.

    I wonder why that is.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 05/06/2014 - 06:39 pm.

      Actually, no

      I haven’t noticed that at all. I hear it regularly. Just takes an open mind to hear what is actually being said instead of only hearing sound bites and talking points.

  12. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/06/2014 - 06:37 pm.

    Dehn’s proposal

    has a catch: it’s a resolution calling for constitutional convention. Under the US Constitution, a constitutional convention would not be and could not be limited to a single issue. It would be wide open affair and likely as easily manipulated and bought off by corporate interests as the Supreme Court.

    I support a constitutional amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s decisions overruling decades and centuries of jurisprudence that corporations are juristic persons subject to legislative control and not the other way around. And one reversing Buckley v. Valleo that “money of speech” protected by the First Amendment. Another way is to replace the zombies on the Supreme Court who supported these antidemocratic decisions with people who support democracy.

  13. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/06/2014 - 07:04 pm.

    Please name the names of all the people in Congress who have been bribed by corporate money. Otherwise, give it a rest–again!

    • Submitted by richard owens on 05/07/2014 - 07:32 am.

      Even outright bribery is now narrowly defined.

      SCOTUS says It must be shown that a payment to an official was instrumental in the official’s actual action.

      A country that spends so much political money to destroy candidate’s reputations and distort and misinform about the issues is not only wasting precious resources, it is destroying trust, dialogue and bi-partisan action. Ultimately it will destroy democracy.

      Filling our courtrooms with fights over unlimited spending by a few monied interests erases the quest for justice itself.

      Americans will be sorry we sold our electoral system for more attack ads and rumor mongering.

      Even a war won’t restore trust, dialogue and bi-partisanship when the raw power of money is finished with us.

  14. Submitted by Jon Lord on 05/07/2014 - 11:35 am.

    to expound a little on what Greg said

    In saying that corporations are people shouldn’t a corporation be under the same restrictions and laws as one single individual? As Greg stated?

    A corporation with a board of trustees and executives should be restricted to one single vote. If two vote then they should be treated as if they all illegally voted twice. And only one, the corporation as a person, can give the max money to a political group as a single individual. Individually, as part of the corporation ‘person’ they should not be able to give beyond that amount or be found to be breaking max contribution law.

    Shouldn’t criminal law also apply to a corporation as a single person? So if they, anyone under that corporate umbrella, would break the law the corporation as an individual person goes to jail, meaning all the board members and execs together as a single person.

    Otherwise that law is saying that an artificial entity is a person with all the rights of a real person but no physical presence.

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