In her latest column for Boston Review, Professor Karlan explores the Supreme Court’s decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the idea of corporations as people. Here is an excerpt:
When the Supreme Court heard Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. in 1886, few would have pegged the case as a turning point in constitutional law. The matter at hand seemed highly technical: could California increase the property tax owed by a railroad if the railroad built fences on its property? As it turned out, the Court ruled unanimously in the railroad’s favor. And in so doing, the Court casually affirmed the railroad’s argument that corporations are “persons” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” So certain were the justices of the Fourteenth Amendment’s applicability that their opinion did not engage the issue, but the Court reporter recorded the justices’ perspective on the topic:
Before argument Mr. Chief Justice Waite said: ‘The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.’
That statement marks the origin of the view that corporations are persons as a matter of constitutional law. This played a central role in the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that restricted corporate spending on electioneering communications in the run-up to a federal election. The Court declared that Congress could not discriminate between electioneering communications according to the identity of the speaker: since individual human beings clearly have a First Amendment right to speak about candidates during the election process, so too must corporations.
Much criticism of the Citizens United decision has focused on whether corporations should have rights under the Constitution. This critique is mistaken. Corporations come in many forms, ranging from large, publicly traded profit-driven companies (think IBM) to smaller, ideologically motivated nonprofits (the American Civil Liberties Union or the Audubon Society) with many others in between (your local newspaper). The diverse nature of corporations may mean that some corporations have stronger claims than others with respect to particular rights, but on the whole it is clear that our democracy could not function if corporations received no constitutional protection. One of the most famous First Amendment decisions of the Warren Court, New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), protected a for-profit newspaper from a libel suit for publishing a paid advertisement criticizing a public official. Many foundational freedom-of-association cases likewise involve corporations, such as the NAACP. And even with respect to purely economic rights, it is hard to argue persuasively that the government should have no obligation to provide due process to corporations before imposing fines or condemning their property.
So corporations are entitled to constitutional protection. But are they entitled to the same protection as living, breathing human beings? To read the full article, go to http://www.bostonreview.net/BR36.4/pamela_s_karlan_corporations_as_persons.php