Sunday, September 18, 2011

It depends on what your definition of 'person' is

I don't usually see this as a place to comment on politics, but if a candidate makes a statement that pertains to business and I know a thing or two that might shed light, I don't mind tiptoeing into the minefield. We all need a little excitement now and then.

Mitt Romney's recent comment, "Corporations are people, my friend," left some people scratching their heads. Was he talking about people who work for corporations, or folks who sit on their boards? CEOs are people, too, dang it! Very rich people, but people nonetheless.

But on the way home from work recently I heard an item on the radio explaining "corporate personhood," both the issue and its history in this country. Was this Romney's allusion?

OK, history time. Though hardly sexy, the concept of corporations as persons with actual rights under the U.S. Constitution is a hotly debated issue, especially when it comes to issues like campaign finance and free speech.

Back in 1819, when the saber tooth tiger was still roaming Idaho (I'm kidding!), the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Dartmouth College v. Woodward that corporations were entitled to have contracts honored as if they had been entered into by natural persons. This set the legal train in motion, and the big watershed came in 1886, in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. That decision recognized corporations as persons with constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment.

The decision was unanimous and uncontroversial at the time, but its ramifications were huge. Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1949, "the Santa Clara case becomes one of the most momentous of all our decisions. [...] Corporations were now armed with constitutional prerogatives."

So there you have it, for what it's worth. It's Sunday afternoon, and time for rumination. We'll get back to new restaurants and businesses this week.