Do corporations count as people? The Supreme Court said as much in Citizens United, but a Pennsylvania judge recently issued a resounding “no.” On March 20, Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca ruled that the state’s constitution doesn’t guarantee corporations a right to privacy — because that’s a privilege reserved for people.
Two local newspapers had petitioned O’Dell-Seneca to unseal a 2011 settlement between a western Pennsylvania family and several fracking companies. The Hallowich family had sued over charges that hydraulic fracking operations on their land were causing them chronic nosebleeds, headaches and sore throats. The companies agreed to settle but imposed a strict gag order — something the fracking industry regularly insists upon in health-related lawsuits.
Gas extraction company Range Resources Corp. argued before O’Dell-Seneca that the companies’ privacy rights protected them from disclosing the details of the settlement. But the judge disagreed, finding the argument “meritless” because the companies have no right to privacy.
In fact, Judge O’Dell-Seneca spent roughly one-third of her 32-page decision forcefully articulating the reasons why corporations are not considered legal persons under the state’s constitution, observing that, “the constitutional rights that business entities may assert are not coterminous or homogeneous with the rights of human beings.” She continued, “It is axiomatic that corporations, companies and partnerships have no ‘spiritual nature,’ ‘feelings,’ ‘intellect,’ ‘beliefs,’ ‘thoughts,’ ‘emotions’ or ‘sensations,’ because they do not exist in the manner that humankind exists.”
“The ruling represents the first crack in the judicial armor that has been so meticulously welded together by major corporations,” Thomas Linzey, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) executive director, told AlterNet. In what it calls a “new civil rights movement,” CELDF has helped more than 100 communities in eight states adopt a Community Bill of Rights to limit corporate personhood.
Other activists hope that Judge O’Dell-Seneca’s decisions will boost the movement for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution clarifying that corporations are not people. The Move to Amend Coalition has gathered more than 280,000 online signatures supporting such an amendment, and 12 states have passed resolutions of support.