The founding fathers must be twirling like pinwheels. The theme they laid out in that great democratic document, the Constitution of the United States, was that all power derives from the people. Nowhere does it even suggest that power derives from corporations. In fact, the founders perceived corporations as a threat to democracy. One of the primary reasons they went to war was because British trading corporations were imposing their private will on the colonies.

Yet five Supreme Court justices have just handed our democracy over to corporations by giving them unlimited power to control elections in this country. The court ruled that it is the constitutional right of corporations to spend as much money as they want to support candidates. That opens the floodgates for corporate money to influence the election of everyone from school board members to the president. Corporate cash has been buying politicians for a long time, but never before has it been considered a fundamental freedom. Conservatives who rail against activist judges must be outraged.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned of another frightening possibility. He wrote that the decision “…would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.” Some of those multinational corporations are owned by foreign governments unlikely to have our best interests at heart. Through their corporate treasuries they could dump an unlimited amount of money into U.S. elections. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who seems to scare conservatives to death, could funnel a ton of money through Citgo and buy himself a U.S. president.

The notion that corporations are people was born May 10, 1886. But it was an illegitimate birth. In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, a case before the Supreme Court involving the court’s right to tax some of the railroad’s fence posts, the railroad pushed to get the court to rule that corporations have equal taxation and other human rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court decided in favor of Southern Pacific on the fence post matter, but dodged the issue of personhood of corporations. It held no open court discussion about it, wrote no opinions mentioning it, and rendered no judgment on it.

But the court reporter, a former railroad official named J.C. Bancroft Davis, wrote the headnote (summary of the case) to the decision. His lead sentence was: “The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a state to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

An old proverb says that a lie repeated 1,000 times becomes the truth, and the lie of corporate personhood has been repeated ad infinitum by CEOs, politicians, pundits and judges. So there you have it. A clerk’s personal opinion, carrying no weight of law and misinterpreting what the court said, is the basis of the court’s ruling that corporations are people and have the fundamental freedom to buy elections.