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Monday, January 25, 2010

Natural persons, artificial persons, and the color of corporations (Citizens United v. FEC)

Whatever happened to the distinction between a "natural person" and a "fictitious person" (i.e., corporation) or, in Chief Justice Marshall's words in the Dartmouth College Case (1819), "an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law . . . . the mere creature of law"? The fact that a corporation is composed of natural persons (stockholders) does not make the corporation itself a natural person, and it is ludicrous to think that the founders ever imagined that the Constitution would apply to corporations. Except for the growing number, size, and power of corporations, which were practically non-existent in the U.S. when the Constitution was drafted, the facts have not changed.

An interesting affirmation of Justice Marshall's view occurred in a legal case from 1908 (109 Va. 439) in which the Virginia Supreme Court held that, because a corporation, an artifical being, exists separately from the stockholders who compose it, a "corporation composed of Negroes" is "not a 'colored' person" (quotations from a notice in Michigan Law Review, 7 [Nov. 1908]: 67).

Surely the 19th-century innovation of extending constitutional rights to "artificial beings" is ripe for reassessment.

Or, if the current Court thinking about corporations were to prevail, should municipal corporations also be accorded free-speech rights? Then, on the basis of a referendum perhaps, cities could put their tax dollars behind particular gubernatorial or presidential candidates.