A bumber sticker/ facebook photo that has been making the rounds of late says, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” Of course, it’s making reference to the January 2010 Supreme Court case that struck down the notion of corporate limits on campaign contributions to “electioneering communications” on the grounds that it would limit corporations’ right to free speech. Many worried (including me) that the legal system was inviting interest groups to trounce the democratic process.
But that irony was apparently just a tiny foretaste of things to come. For now, not only do corporation enjoy MORE “freedom of speech” than real flesh-and-blood people, but may also NOT be held responsible for their crimes. Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a couple of cases having to do with whether or not corporations could be tried as individuals for human rights abuses abroad. The most notably egregious case involves Royal Dutch Shell’s complicity with torture and executions allegedly carried out by the Nigerian government in the 1990s in the Ogoni region. (See The Politics of Bones, for a version of the story.) Many observers believe that, once again by a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court will fully roll back the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, extend the 2004 Sosa decision, and grant corporations a kind of impunity, allowing them to continue to find “fall guys” in lower positions. If that happens, our legal system will have officially sanctioned a view of corporations as coordinated, intentional bodies when it comes to granting them rights, but uncoordinated, unintentional bodies when it comes to demanding responsible behavior of them.
And when it comes to timing, hats off, Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy. The Occupy movement thanks you for the fuel. That should keep them warm through a cold winter.