An interactive history of constitutional rights successively granted to legal fictions, and other related issues in American case law and legislation, inspired by Jan Edwards’ timeline for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
(Use bottom scroll bar to go through the timeline.)
Court Decisions (Alphabetical)
[Click HERE for Chronological List]
American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock (2012)
Whether Montana is bound by the holding of Citizens United, that a ban on corporate independent political expenditures is a violation of the First Amendment, when the ban applies to state, rather than federal, elections.
Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett (2011)
Arizona’s matching funds scheme, which provides additional funds to a publicly funded candidate when expenditures by a privately financed candidate and independent groups exceed the funding initially allotted to the publicly financed candidate, substantially burdens political speech and is not sufficiently justified by a compelling interest to survive First Amendment scrutiny.
Armour Packing Co. v. United States (1908)
The Court extended the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial in a criminal case to corporations.
Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990)
The Court upheld the restriction on corporate speech based on the notion that “corporate wealth can unfairly influence elections,” and the Michigan law still allowed the corporation to make contributions from a segregated fund.
Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
The Court upheld a federal law which set limits on campaign contributions, but ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, and struck down portions of the law.
“A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached. [n18] This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.”
Butcher’s Union Co. v. Crescent City Co. (1884)
The power of a state legislature to make a contract of such a character that, under the provisions of the Constitution, it cannot be modified or abrogated does not extend to subjects affecting public health or public morals so as to limit the future exercise of legislative power on those subjects to the prejudice of the general welfare.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)
The Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. The decision overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and partially overruled McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.
“Austin is overruled, and thus provides no basis for allowing the Government to limit corporate independent expenditures. Hence, §441b’s restrictions on such expenditures are invalid and cannot be applied to Hillary. Given this conclusion, the part of McConnell that upheld BCRA §203’s extension of §441b’s restrictions on independent corporate expenditures is also overruled.”
Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819)
The Court ruled that the College’s corporate charter qualified as a contract between private parties, the King and the trustees, with which the legislature could not interfere. Even though the United States are no longer royal colonies, the contract is still valid because the Constitution says that a state cannot pass laws to impair a contract.
Dodge v. Ford Motor Co. (1919) (PDF) [Michigan State Supreme Court]
The Michigan Supreme Court held that a business corporation is organized primarily for the profit of the stockholders, as opposed to the community or its employees. The discretion of the directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end, and does not extend to the reduction of profits or the non-distribution of profits among stockholders in order to benefit the public.
First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978)
In the majority opinion, Justice Lewis Powell ruled that a Massachusetts criminal statute prohibiting the expenditure of corporate funds for “influencing or affecting” voters’ opinions infringed on corporations’ “protected speech in a manner unjustified by a compelling state interest.”
Fong Foo v. United States (1962)
The Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment prevented the federal government from bringing a defendant, even a legal fiction, to trial twice for the same charge, applying the double-jeopardy principle to corporations for the first time.
Hale v. Henkel (1906)
“A corporation is but an association of individuals with a distinct name and legal entity, and, in organizing itself as a collective body, it waives no appropriate constitutional immunities, and, although it cannot refuse to produce its books and papers, it is entitled to immunity under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, and, where an examination of its books is not authorized by an act of Congress, a subpoena duces tecum requiring the production of practically all of its books and papers is as indefensible as a search warrant would be if couched in similar terms.”
International Dairy Food Association MIF v. Amestoy (1996)
The right not to speak inheres in political and commercial speech alike and extends to statements of fact as well as statements of opinion. “Because we find that the dairy manufacturers are entitled to an injunction on First Amendment grounds, we do not reach their claims made pursuant to the Commerce Clause.”
Lochner v. New York (1905)
The Court held that a “liberty of contract” was implicit in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee (1933)
“Corporations are as much entitled to the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment as are natural persons.”
Marshall v. Barlow’s, Inc. (1978)
The Court held that a provision in the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) that permitted inspectors to enter premises without a warrant to inspect for safety hazards and violations of OSHA regulations violated the Fourth Amendment.
McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (Pending)
[From SCOTUSBlog] Giving itself the option of changing its mind on government power to limit campaign contributions, the Supreme Court…set the stage for review of the constitutionality of a specific donation ceiling set by federal law, but a larger issue looms in the background. Since the Court’s landmark opinion in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, it has always given government more leeway to control contributions to candidates or political organizations than over spending by candidates or by independent political activists. That differing constitutional treatment potentially is at stake in the new case.
Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway v. Beckwith (1889)
“Corporations are persons within the meaning of the clauses in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution concerning the deprivation of property, and concerning the equal protection of the laws.”
Minor v. Happersett (1875)
The Minor v. Happersett ruling was based on an interpretation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court readily accepted that Minor, a woman, was a citizen of the United States, but it held that the constitutionally protected privileges of citizenship did not include the right to vote.
NAACP v. Alabama (1958)
After the circuit court issued a restraining order, the state issued a subpoena for various records, including the NAACP’s membership lists. The Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s demand for the lists had violated the right of due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
NAACP v. Button (1963)
“Petitioner challenges the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals on many grounds. But we reach only one: that Chapter 33, as construed and applied, abridges the freedoms of the First Amendment, protected against state action by the Fourteenth. More specifically, petitioner claims that the chapter infringes the right of the NAACP and its members and lawyers to associate for the purpose of assisting persons who seek legal redress for infringements of their constitutionally guaranteed and other rights. We think petitioner may assert this right on its own behalf, because, though a corporation, it is directly engaged in those activities, claimed to be constitutionally protected, which the statute would curtail. Cf. Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233. We also think petitioner has standing to assert the corresponding rights of its members.”
Newberry v. United States (1921)
The Court held that the United States Constitution did not grant the United States Congress the authority to regulate political party primaries or nomination processes. The court struck down 1911 amendments to the Federal Corrupt Practices Act which placed spending limits on candidate and political election committee spending in primaries or other nomination processes for federal office.
Noble v. Union River Logging (1893)
“A revocation of the approval of the secretary of the interior, however, by his successor in office, was an attempt to deprive the plaintiff of its property without due process of law, and was, therefore, void.”
Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania (1888)
“A private corporation is included under the designation of ‘person’ in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, section I.”
Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon (1922)
The Court considered the magnitude of diminution of the value of property and found that when a diminution reaches a certain point due to regulation it becomes a taking and the government must compensate for it. In this case, denial of the right to mine was denial of profit that constituted a taking because the regulation elevated the rights of one party over another in an otherwise valid contract. This represents the first example of a loss of profit being equated with a taking under the Fifth Amendment.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
The Court upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal,” warping the mechanism of the equal representation under the law and denying African-Americans full access to the rights granted to them with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Ross v. Bernhard (1970)
The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in stockholders’ derivative actions in which the corporation would be entitled to a jury trial.
Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886)
The headnote, a summary written for the official record after a case is decided, incorrectly stated that the Justices unanimously agreed that corporations were considered persons under the Fourteenth Amendment. Legal personhood got a foothold when the headnote was cited as precedent in the cases of Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania and Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway v. Beckwith.
See v. City of Seattle (1967)
“It is now settled that, when an administrative agency subpoenas corporate books or records, the Fourth Amendment requires that the subpoena be sufficiently limited in scope, relevant in purpose, and specific in directive so that compliance will not be unreasonably burdensome. 5 The agency has the right to conduct all reasonable inspections of such documents which are contemplated by statute, but it must delimit the confines of a search by designating the needed documents in a formal subpoena. In addition, while the demand to inspect may be issued by the agency, in the form of an administrative subpoena, it may not be made and enforced [387 U.S. 541, 545] by the inspector in the field, and the subpoenaed party may obtain judicial review of the reasonableness of the demand prior to suffering penalties for refusing to comply.”
Slaughterhouse Cases (1873)
“It is quite clear, then, that there is a citizenship of the United States, and a citizenship of a State, which are distinct from each other, and which depend upon different characteristics or circumstances in the individual. We think this distinction and its explicit recognition in this amendment of great weight in this argument, because the next paragraph of this same section, which is the one mainly relied on by the plaintiffs in error, speaks only of privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, and does not speak of those of citizens of the several States.”
SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission (2010) [U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit]
“In January 2008, the Federal Election Committee (FEC) issued a draft advisory opinion concluding that under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), SpeechNow would be required to organize as a ‘political committee’ as defined by 2 U.S.C. § 431(4) and would be subject to all the requirements and restrictions concomitant with that designation. Keating and four other individuals availed themselves of 2 U.S.C. § 437h, under which an individual may seek declaratory judgment to construe the constitutionality of any provision of FECA. As required by that provision, the district court certified the constitutional questions directly to this court for en banc determination. Thereafter, the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010), which resolves this appeal. In accordance with that decision, we hold that the contribution limits of 2 U.S.C. § 441a(a)(1)(C) and 441a(a)(3) are unconstitutional as applied to individuals’ contributions to SpeechNow.”
United States v. Classic (1941)
The Court ruled that the United States Constitution empowered Congress to regulate primary elections and political party nominations and procedures — but only in cases where state law made primaries and nominations part of the election and/or whenever the primary effectively determined the outcome of the election.
VA State Board of Pharmacy v. VA Citizens Consumer Council (1976)
Commercial speech, like other forms of speech, is protected speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. But, commercial speech may be regulated provided that they are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they serve a significant governmental interest, and in doing so they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.
West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937)
The Court flatly declared that the “Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract” and that such a freedom is thus “a qualified, and not an absolute, right” under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Declaration of Independence
The founding document of our nation.
Federal Corrupt Practices Act (1910)
First serious campaign finance law.
Federal Election Campaign Act (1971)
Major campaign finance legislation.
Collection of essays in favor of the “new” Constitution written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
Hatch Act (1939)
Prohibited partisan political activity by civil servants.
McCain-Feingold Act (2003)
Campaign finance reform aimed at “soft money.”
Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (1883)
Outlawed political contributions by civil servants and empowered public employees to opt out of political activity without penalty.
Smith-Connally Act (1943)
Wartime legislation empowering the President to commandeer industry on an emergency basis for the war effort. Included a provision prohibiting unions from making contributions in federal elections.
Taft-Hartley Act (1947) (pdf)
According to First Amendment scholar Floyd Abrams, Taft-Hartley “was the first law barring unions and corporations from making independent expenditures in support of or opposition to federal candidates.” But it was mostly anti-union legislation.
Tillman Act (1907)
First legislation preventing campaign contributions by corporations.
The founding document of our federal government.
Amendment Gazette Primers
Citizens United is a non-profit advocacy group that sued the Federal Election Commission for preventing the broadcast, in the months leading up to the 2008 election, of a political pay-per-view video they had produced. The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court and “Citizens United” became the shorthand description of the decision the Court made in that case, which was handed down in January, 2010.
The doctrine that money is a form of speech was not passed in any American legislature. Only seven people, Supreme Court justices, voted to create that inequitable equivalency. That vote took place in 1976 in the ruling on Buckley v. Valeo. Senator Buckley (C – NY), presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy (D – MN) and others filed a suit against the Secretary of the Senate and ex officio member of the Federal Elections Commission , Francis Valeo. The decision of the Court changed the course of American federal elections and established one of the roots of the Citizens United decision.
“Corporate personhood” is an incomplete shorthand in the same way that “overturn Citizens United” doesn’t encompass the entirety of the problem of money dominating politics in America. When people from organizations like Move To Amend say corporate personhood, what they usually mean by “corporate” is all legal fictions, including corporations, non-profits, unions, NGOs, PACs, political parties, incorporated towns and cities, and all other forms of organization that are created in charters granted by government agencies. And what they usually mean by “personhood” are the Constitutional protections afforded to those legal fictions that the Founding Fathers had originally reserved exclusively for individual citizens (We the People). The distinction between “natural” and “artificial” personhood is what is often lost in the translation to English from the legal pig latin of jurisprudence.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is nothing if not a stalwart against any form of encroachment on the First Amendment right to free speech. Their mission of defending the right of all people to give voice to even the most outrageous of opinions is both honorable and admirable. But this singular obsession can also lead the ACLU into a position of absolutism that is neither socially relevant nor constitutionally valid.
by Bill Moyers, Moyers & Co. (Sep. 14, 2012)
The role of the business community not only grew but expanded, shifting into new modes of organization that had previously been confined to its critics. Recognizing that lawmaking in Washington had become more open and dynamic, business groups remade themselves to fit the times. The expanding network of business groups would soon be capable of hoisting the public interest groups on their own petards. Using rapidly emerging tools of marketing and communications, they learned how to generate mass campaigns. Building networks of employees, shareholders, local companies, and firms with shared interests (for example, retailers and suppliers), they could soon flood Washington with letters and phone calls. Within a few years, these classically top-down organizations were to thrive at generating “bottom up”–style campaigns that not only matched the efforts of their rivals but surpassed them.
by Jeffrey Clements, AlterNet (Dec. 6, 2011)
In 1971, Lewis Powell, a mild-mannered, courtly, and shrewd corporate lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, soon to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, wrote a memorandum to his client, the United States Chamber of Commerce. He outlined a critique and a plan that changed America. […] Powell titled his 1971 memo to the Chamber of Commerce “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” He explained, “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” In response, corporations must organize and fund a drive to achieve political power through “united action.” Powell emphasized the need for a sustained, multiyear corporate campaign to use an “activist-minded Supreme Court” to shape “social, economic and political change” to the advantage of corporations.
by Lewis Powell, U.S. Chamber of Commerce (Aug. 23, 1971)
There always have been some who opposed the American system, and preferred socialism or some form of statism (communism or fascism). Also, there always have been critics of the system, whose criticism has been wholesome and constructive so long as the objective was to improve rather than to subvert or destroy. But what now concerns us is quite new in the history of America. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.
by Trevor Potter, AlterNet (May 23, 2012)
I had a call from a law professor at a prominent West Coast law school who said she wanted to thank me. “I have been trying to find ways to explain the role of incorporator to my students—now I can just show them the Colbert Report.”
by Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker (May 21, 2012)
“When Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was first argued before the Supreme Court, on March 24, 2009, it seemed like a case of modest importance.”
by Joan McCarter, DailyKOS (Jan. 19 2012)
A new independent national survey of 500 small business leaders released Wednesday by the American Sustainable Business Council, Main Street Alliance and Small Business Majority shows how that decision [pdf] has found that the vast majority of small business owners believe that Citizens United hasn’t just increased the influence of large corporations, but hurt them.
by Bill Moyers, The Nation (Nov. 21, 2011)
John Boehner calls on the bankers, holds out his cup and offers them total obeisance from the House majority if only they fill it. Barack Obama criticizes bankers as “fat cats,” then invites them to dine at a pricey New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 a person. That’s now the norm, and they get away with it. The president has raised more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and private equity managers than any Republican candidate, including Mitt Romney. Inch by inch he has conceded ground to them while espousing populist rhetoric that his very actions betray.
by Thom Hartmann, TruthOut.org (Apr. 6, 2011)
“Part of the American Revolution was about to be lost a century after it had been fought. At the time probably very few of the people involved realized that what they were about to witness could be a counterrevolution that would change life in the United States and, ultimately, the world over the course of the following century.”
How a Bill(ionaire) Becomes a Law(maker), by Represent.us