EDITORIAL: Corporations = Citizens?

Jesse Heath

The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in the wake of the Civil War in order to secure “the freedom of the slave race,” according to Supreme Court Justice Samuel F. Miller (1873). However, very soon after its ratification the Supreme Court, our “impartial” institution of defining justice, transformed the amendment to serve the interests of corporations.The precedent was set in 1886, just 18 years following the fourteenth amendment’s ratification. The case was Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The details of the case itself were not what made this case so important, but rather the framework of argument to which the Supreme Court limited the case. Before the opening arguments, Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waite stated, “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution…applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion it does.”

Thus, with one careless remark, Chief Justice Waite forever changed the legal status of corporations by interpreting them, in the words of the court reporter, as “persons within the intent of the clause in section one of the fourteenth amendment…” And apparently, the late nineteenth century was a period in which corporations were subjected to malicious and discriminatory attacks. Indeed, between 1890 and 1910, of the fourteenth amendment cases brought to the Supreme Court, nineteen dealt with African-Americans and 288 dealt with corporations.

The judgment of Waite’s declaration of corporate citizenship is questionable. The reasoning behind it is that since corporations are owned and operated by citizens, then they ought to be afforded the same protections as those citizens. However, several contradictions arise from this argument. For example, if U.S. law interprets corporations as legal citizens, and shareholders own these “citizens,” then ownership of a corporate citizen violates the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlaws slavery.

A second obvious problem with interpreting corporations as individuals is that their actions, interests and power are nothing like those of citizens. How a corporation, that never dies, holds thousands of people’s jobs in its hand, and can have a massive effect on the environment, can be interpreted as a citizen, I know not.

Furthermore, a citizen has a lot more stake in their community than a corporation does. The citizen has to raise his or her family in the community. I doubt you would find a citizen dumping PCBs in the Fox River, but Appleton Papers, Inc. already has.

A corporation enters a community with interests that can be far removed from those of the community. The corporation enters a community with the intention of using its labor, land, and resources. If, in the process of doing business, the corporation pollutes the environment, runs local small businesses or family farms into bankruptcy, or produces unsafe products, those costs are not accounted for in the corporation’s bottom line.

If the community demands that a corporation pay for a mess it has created, the corporation can always pay it, and quickly relocate, leaving hundreds or thousands of unemployed workers behind. There are obviously many flaws in Chief Justice Waite’s decision.

In 1949, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, commenting on the 1886 ruling, wrote, “there was no history, logic, or reason given to support that view.” I would go even further to argue that, rather than being absent of history, logic, or reason, that view was a stubborn and intentional refusal to acknowledge the history and logic surrounding corporate entities. That is, of course, assuming the Supreme Court has always seen its purpose as serving the people of the United States.