Supreme Court Gives Birth to Corporate Person!

“Corporations are people, my friend.”  Mitt Romney has been rebuked and ridiculed for this statement made on the campaign trail.  Unfortunately he’s right; for more than 120 years the Supreme Court of the United States has held that corporations are entitled to the same rights as human beings under the Constitution.

The year was 1886 and the case before the Supreme Court was Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad.  At issue was whether railroad corporations were entitled to protection against unlawful taking of property under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Before the case was even argued, Chief Justice Morrison Waite declared from the bench that “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.”  The syllabus of the case, written by court reporter J. C. Bancroft Davis, begins “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 …”.  (Nace, p.103).  Corporate personhood was born.

Through the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries the Supreme Court decided that other rights and protections provided to citizens by the Constitution applied equally to corporations.  These included the Fifth Amendment (1893, 1962), the commerce clause (1895), the Fourth Amendment (1906, 1950, 1978), the Sixth Amendment (1908), the Seventh Amendment (1970), and the First Amendment (1978, 1986) (Nace, pp. 243-250).  For all practical purposes, today corporations have all the rights and protections that the Constitution grants to human citizens.

You might think that the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Citizens United v. FEC was based on the precedent of corporate personhood.  Well, not exactly.  The decision did not explicitly say that corporations are entitled to First Amendment rights because corporations are persons.  Rather, the Court decided that the First Amendment does not say that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech of natural human beings”.  Thus Congress could not abridge the free speech of corporations (Lessig, pp. 238-239).

So there you have it folks.  Corporations are people my friend.  If you don’t like it, live with it, or do something about it!


Lessig, Lawrence, Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It.  Twelve, Hachette Book Group., 2011.

Nace, Ted, Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy. Berrett-Koehler Publishers,