The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has been doing pioneering work for many years in trying to protect the rights of communities against corporate enclosures, especially in its home state of Pennsylvania. This work is impressive for trying to blend civil disobedience and law at the municipal level: a bold, creative strategy to forge new legal standards to protect the environment and the rights of communities.
The executive director of CELDF, Thomas Alan Linzey, recently published a powerful piece about a landmark ruling by a Pennsylvania judge holding that corporations are not “persons” under the state constitution. The litigation revolved around a claim by Range Resources, a gas extraction corporation, that it has a constitutional right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution. The corporation had tried to prevent the public release of a sealed settlement agreement between it and a family in western Pennsylvania that said its water had been contaminated by fracking.
But Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca of the Washington Court of Common Pleas denied the request, saying that “in the absence of state law, business entities are nothing.” If corporations can claim independent rights, she held, then “the chattel would become the co-equal to its owners, the servant on par with its masters, the agent the peer of its principals, and the legal fabrication superior to the law that created and sustains it.” It turns out that Range Resources and other corporations had paid out $750,000 to settle claims of water contamination caused by fracking.
CELDF’s litigation strategy is brave, innovative and much-needed. While rulings such as Judge O’Dell-Seneca’s will surely be challenged, such confrontations in the courts are precisely what are needed to dismantle what Linzey calls the “judicial armor” that insulates large corporations from meaningful accountability, whether for irresponsible fracking or agribusiness abuses. Just as lawyers contrived a series of lawsuits that led to the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Linzey sees CELDF cases challenging the broad rights of corporations as the beginnings of “a new civil rights movement.”
Linzey’s full essay – along with several terrific quotes from Judge O’Dell-Seneca’s court ruling – are well worth reading. It can be downloaded here as a pdf file. While you’re at it, check out CELDF and its impressive array of initiatives.