Conservative attorney, Move to Amend director face off over campaign finance

James Bopp says corporations are collections of individuals that have come together for a specific purpose – so of course they should have the same rights that the Constitution guarantees to people.

David Cobb says corporations are artificial entities, created by government action, and the idea that they enjoy constitutionally protected rights is a perversion of U.S. legal and constitutional history.

David Cobb

David Cobb

It’s a stark disagreement, and it was on full display Monday night in a debate at the IU Maurer School of Law, organized by the IU Civic Leaders Center and focused on the impact of the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.

Cobb is director of Move to Amend, which wants to amend the Constitution to declare that corporations aren’t people and that governments can regulate their political activity. IU graduate Bopp, a Terre Haute, Ind., attorney, advised Citizens United and is a well-known advocate for conservative causes.

Their face-off, titled “Citizens Divided: Corporate Money, Speech and Politics,” packed the law school’s Moot Court Room and an adjacent classroom where more audience members watched on video.

Cobb traced the genealogy of Citizens United to earlier decisions in which business interests promoted “judicial activism” to enshrine the philosophy of corporate personhood. Justice Lewis Powell championed the idea. Conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist resisted, but Powell prevailed.

James Bopp

James Bopp

Cobb argued that questions about what corporations can and can’t do should be a matter for the political arena, not constitutional law. He said Citizens United overturned a century of established law that said governments could regulate political contributions and spending.

“What we have seen in this country, in my lifetime, is that we are turning elections into auctions,” Cobb said, drawing cheers from the audience.

But Bopp said contributions reflect public support. Restricting campaign donations, he said, gives an unfair advantage to incumbents and to candidates who are independently wealthy. He said he supports disclosing contributions and spending, but only if they are “unambiguously campaign related.”

Citing the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Sedition Act of 1918, Bopp said giving government more power to regulate political activity is a dangerous idea that could lead to restrictions on small businesses, nonprofit organizations and even political discussions like Monday’s debate.

“People are human,” he said. “They don’t like to be criticized. They will use the government to stop it if they can.”

Bopp said the constitutional change Move to Amend is proposing would turn the U.S. into “just another old, tired, socialist dictatorship,” and he predicted the idea won’t get past first base. But Cobb pointed to widespread support for the concept in nonbinding referendums and town-hall resolutions.

“Citizens United v. FEC did do one positive thing,” Cobb said. “It united citizens in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

A video of the debate can be seen on the IU Maurer School of Law’s YouTube channel.

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