In 1886 the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Morrison R. Waite, declared at the start of oral arguments in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, “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.” This simple statement has generally been taken to be the Court’s definitive position on the legal personhood of corporations, and many writers have cited it as the key precedent for later decisions extending constitutional rights to corporations, including the recent Citizens United case.
But other decisions handed down by the Supreme Court around the same time seemed to say just the opposite—that the Fourteenth Amendment did NOT apply to corporations. The general thrust of these other decisions was to uphold the regulatory powers of the states over corporations by underscoring the states’ power to set conditions for, discriminate against, and even exclude completely foreign corporations (that is, corporations chartered by other states.) This strain of the case law largely eclipsed Waite’s Santa Clara declaration at least until the 1950s, when southern states sought to use their regulatory authority over corporations to keep out the NAACP.
Questions? E-mail Eric Wakin.
All events are free and open to the public but require registration at firstname.lastname@example.org