Corporate personhood

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Corporate personhood is the legal concept that corporations should have the same rights as individual people, i.e. they have legal personhood. This idea has been gradually established in the United States through a series of court decisions, ultimately reversing the principle under which corporations were originally chartered, i.e. that of providing for the public good.

Although The public good was all too often served via the proxy of government coffers, corporations were at least required to justify themselves in those terms. The arc of law over the past two centuries, however, has bent towards corporate profits being and end in themselves, and one which supercedes any notion of the public good.

Key Events

  • 1819: Dartmouth College v. Woodward [W] determined that corporate charters are private contracts, not state-granted
  • 1886: Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad [W]: the headnote [W], written by a former railway president, claimed that all of the justices believed that corporations enjoyed rights under the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), although the justices had said no such thing. Despite this clear error, the case has been cited as precedent for corporate personhood ever since. This makes it impossible for government to treat businesses differently from each other, regardless of their nature. (Wikisource; Thom Hartmann video, 10.5 minutes)
  • 1906: Hale v. Henkel [1][2]: gave corporations "immunity under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures", including -- in the absence of either a search warrant or an act of Congress -- audits. Interestingly, this case also affirmed that:
    • "a corporation is a creature of the State, and there is a reserved right in the legislature to investigate its contracts and find out whether it has exceeded its powers"
    • a corporation "being a creature of the State, has not the constitutional right to refuse to submit its books and papers for an examination at the suit of the State; and an officer of a corporation which is charged with criminal violation of a statute cannot plead the criminality of the corporation as a refusal to produce its books."
    • "Franchises of a corporation chartered by a State are, so far as they involve questions of interstate commerce, exercised in subordination to the power of Congress to regulate such commerce; and while Congress may not have general visitatorial power over State corporations, its powers in vindication of its own laws are the same as if the corporation had been created by an act of Congress."
  • 1919: Dodge v. Ford Motor Company [W] established the primacy of stockholders and the sanctity of the profit motive; the purpose of a corporation is no longer the service of the public good, but the service of stockholder profit.
  • 1922: Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon [W] found that any regulation of land that reduces the land's value is, in effect, an exercise of emininent domain, aka regulatory taking [W], and that owners are therefore entitled to compensation for the loss of future profit from such regulations.
    • This reversed clear precedent.
    • This begins to enshrine the concept of right to profit, as any regulation can be seen as effectively reducing the value of the land upon which a business operates, and implicitly leaves the government responsible for the costs of (among other things) cleaning up environmental messes that were previously legal.
    • It also creates a chilling effect as state governments become hesitant to impose regulations in the public interest for fear of the liability expense.
  • 1976: Buckley v. Valeo [W] held that spending money to influence elections is a form of protected speech.
  • 2010: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [W] held that, given the money is speech equivalence, the government can no longer restrict political contributions by corporations, associations, or labor unions.




  • h/t Legalize Democracy (documentary), where the sequence of events was clearly set forth; some discussion here