Corporate Personhood

A Short History on Corporate and Legal Personhood in the Supreme Court of the United States

Dartmouth College v Woodward (1819)

“The Contract Clause applies to private as well as public corporations.”

An act of the legislature of New Hampshire affected a charter granted to Dartmouth College, as a corporation, by King George III in 1769, and the charter was not dissolved by the Revolutionary War. In the subsequent arguments, Woodward argued that the fact that the corporation was established for education made it a public corporation, “ liable to the control of the legislature.” However, the court disagreed and referred to Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution which states, “no state shall, without the consent of Congress, … pass any… law impairing the obligation of contracts.” 

Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886)

In an assessment of the property of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company (SPRC) to determine taxes, the State Board of Equalization of California improperly included fences that were not legally assessable. Santa Clara County then sued the SPRC for unpaid taxes, the constitutionality of which were the basis of this lawsuit.  As relating the personhood of corporations, the most important comment was delivered before the oral arguments by Chief Justice Waite:

“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. “

Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010)

“Limiting independent expenditures on political campaigns by groups such as corporations, labor unions, or other collective entities violates the First Amendment, in part because corporations should be considered as people and their money counts as speech.”

Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, brought a complaint to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) regarding advertisements for Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. Citizens United claimed that the advertisements were political advertising and therefore subject to the McCain-Feingold Act. The advertisements would then be violating the act, which forbids “corporations from funding broadcast advertisements mentioning a candidate 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election.” The FEC dismissed the complaint as they stated the “rules did not apply to the bona fide production of films for commercial purposes.” Citizens United responded by restructuring and beginning to create documentaries. In 2008, the DC District Court denied Citizens United’s motions to stop the FEC from enforcing the McCain-Feingold Act because it found that the film in its entirety was essentially a negative commercial.

Citizens United appealed the case to the Supreme Court which consequently overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce – a case that had held “that political speech may be banned based on the speaker’s corporate identity.”