Disclaimer: The following essay presents lay speculation and should not be interpreted as legal advice or official legal opinions. It is not authored by an attorney but aims to explore the subject matter in a broader historical context.


corporations as people

Corporations as People the Impact on Democracy: 4 Decisions presents a very brief history of four US Supreme Court cases that trace the evolution of one-person-one-vote by expanding the rights of corporate entities (nonvoting, noncitizens) to use money as free speech in political campaigns. I am hardly the first to write about this strange interpretation of personhood as being harmful to the structure of a democratic republic like the constitutional government of the United States.

The concept of corporations being treated as legal persons has a long and complex history in the United States. This essay delves into the progression of Supreme Court decisions that have extended free speech rights to corporations, leading to the increased influence of wealthy corporations as mega-donors in political campaigns. These decisions have raised concerns about the potential implications for the one-person one-vote principle in a democratic republic. By examining each pivotal Supreme Court case in chronological order, we will gain insight into the evolution of corporate personhood and its impact on the democratic process.

Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886)/ Corporations as People

In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Supreme Court did not directly rule on the issue of corporate personhood. However, a statement made by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite in the Court’s headnotes became the foundation for future interpretations. The headnotes declared that corporations are “persons” entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. This interpretation laid the groundwork for future cases that would amplify the rights of corporations.

The consequence, unintended or not, of the Santa Clara decision, was that it equated corporations with individuals in terms of constitutional rights. Although the Court did not explicitly state that corporations are entitled to free speech, the ruling set a precedent for later decisions to interpret corporate personhood in a manner that extended First Amendment protections.

First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978)/ Corporations as People

First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti was a pivotal case in the development of corporate free speech rights. The Supreme Court held that corporate expenditures on ballot initiatives are protected by the First Amendment. The Court ruled that the government could not prohibit corporations from using their general funds to express political views on issues of public concern.

This decision marked a significant expansion of corporate influence in the political arena. By recognizing corporate political speech rights, the Court essentially acknowledged that corporations, as legal persons, possess the ability to sway public opinion and shape the outcomes of elections and policy debates. It opened the door for corporations to engage in political campaigns and spend substantial amounts of money to influence the political landscape.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) Corporations as People

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is perhaps the most significant Supreme Court case in the realm of corporate personhood. The Court ruled that corporations, including nonprofit organizations and unions, have the same political speech rights as individuals. The majority opinion held that restricting corporate expenditures on independent political communications violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

This landmark decision unleashed a flood of corporate spending in political campaigns. It allowed corporations to form “super PACs” and engage in unlimited independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates. The decision effectively removed the longstanding restrictions on corporate political spending, paving the way for wealthy corporations to become influential mega-donors in the political process.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014) Corporations as People

In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court continued to chip away at campaign finance regulations. The Court struck down aggregate contribution limits, which had previously placed restrictions on the total amount of money individuals could contribute to candidates, political parties, and political action committees. The majority opinion held that these limits violated the First Amendment rights of individuals to engage in political speech through contributions.

By eliminating aggregate contribution limits, the Court further empowered wealthy individuals and corporations to exert significant influence over political campaigns. This decision allowed wealthy donors to spread their financial support across numerous candidates and political committees, potentially distorting the democratic principle of one person one vote. Critics argue that this amplifies the voices of the wealthy while diminishing the voices of the average citizens.


The series of Supreme Court decisions discussed in this essay have gradually expanded the rights of corporations, treating them as legal persons entitled to free speech protections. While these decisions emphasize the importance of protecting speech, they have also raised concerns about the potential erosion of the one person one vote principle and the democratic ideal of equal representation.

By enabling wealthy corporations to act as mega-donors to political campaigns, the influence of money in politics has increased exponentially. This trend can skew the policy-making process and create an imbalance in the voices heard by elected officials. It raises questions about whether the democratic system can truly ensure fair representation for all citizens, especially when the influence of a few wealthy entities becomes disproportionate.

The growing dominance of corporate money in politics has sparked debates about campaign finance reform and the need to address the potentially corrosive effects of unlimited corporate spending. Critics argue that the current system tilts the playing field in favor of the ultra-rich, potentially undermining the principles of a democratic republic.

Allowing that the slow but steady set of the four above-mentioned decisions may, in effect, be intentional on the part of the Justices on the court, questions about judicial fairness come into being. Corporations do not vote, their interests are not those of human beings, rather it is to their stockholders, opening the door for ignoring democratic support for legislation. Furthermore, allowing corporate money in massive and unregulated amounts opens the door for legalized corruption where politicians have a deeper connection to their donors than to their constituents. SCOTUS opens the door to benefit only the millionaire and billionaire class while ignoring the legitimate desires of the people who voted them into office.

It is essential to continue debating and examining the implications of these Supreme Court decisions and their impact on the democratic fabric of the United States. Striking a balance between protecting free speech and maintaining fair and equal representation is a fundamental challenge that our society must address to preserve the integrity of our democratic republic.

By Politics-as-Usual

Roger is a retired Professor of language and literacy. Over the past 15 years since his retirement, Roger has kept busy with reading, writing, and creating landscape photographs. In this time of National crisis, as Fascist ideas and policies are being introduced to the American people and ignored by the Mainstream Press, he decided to stand up and be counted as a Progressive American with some ideas that should be shared with as many people who care to read and/or participate in discusssions of these issues. He doesn't ask anyone to agree with his point of view, but if entering the conversation he demands civility. No conspiracy theories, no wild accusations, no threats, no disrespect will be tolerated. Roger monitors all comments and email communication. That is the only rule for entering the conversation. One may persuade, argue for a different point of view, or toss out something that has not been discussed so long as the tone remains part of a civil discussion. Only then can we find common ground and meaningful democratic change.

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