by Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, Associate Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law; Brennan Center Fellow.
Corporations are strange bedfellows to have in a democracy. My new book, Corporate Citizen?, explores how, over the course of American history, corporations have aggressively sought to expand their constitutional rights. And, American courts, especially the U.S. Supreme Court, have often obliged - enabling the slow, yet steady, expansion of corporate rights since near the founding of the nation. But the current Roberts Supreme Court has taken this enabler role to new heights and earned the nickname the “Corporate Court” because of its solicitude towards corporate litigants.
My basic thesis in Corporate Citizen? is that corporations have gained more rights that previously, and appropriately, only applied to human beings, like religious and political speech rights. This could have been palatable if human style responsibilities were also being given to corporations. Instead corporations get to have their cake and eat it too. They are spared concomitant responsibilities, as they are given a First Amendment veto to shoot down reasonable regulations of their economic activity.
By contrast, when we conceptualize real (human) citizenship, typically there are a cluster of rights and responsibilities that are mixed together. We pay taxes, and we get a Congress to represent us. We serve on juries, and we get a fair trial. We sign up for the selective service (if we are men), and we get the protection of the military. If we are victims of a crime, we can seek justice. If we are guilty of committing a crime, we can expect to be held accountable under the rule of law.
But with corporations, which are at their essence just a pile of papers, U.S. courts have granted them more and more rights, and then simultaneously, absolved many firms from responsibilities. The book examines the lack of accountability in areas including environmental stewardship, paying taxes and respecting human rights.