MELISSA BLOCK, host: Among the demands of
Occupy Wall Street protestors is this, an end to corporate personhood.
That demand has been spelled out on protestors signs, like one that
reads: I'll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.
Corporate personhood has underpinnings in legal doctrine.
And to find out more about that, we've turned to Professor John Witt,
who teaches law and history at Yale Law School. Professor Witt, welcome
to the program.
JOHN WITT: Thanks so much for having me.
BLOCK: And when we talk about corporate personhood or corporate
personality in the law, what do we mean? How are corporations treated as
people or persons?
WITT: Well, the law has treated corporations as what some lawyers call
metaphysical persons. That is, they're persons for some purposes and
they're not persons for others.
BLOCK: What sorts of purposes then would apply here?
WITT: Well, for example, a corporation can be prosecuted for a crime,
which is something that usually only persons can be prosecuted for. But
on the other hand, corporations get rights. They get rights to contract.
They can't marry or run for office or vote, but they can speak. Things
BLOCK: The legal doctrine, as I understand, it goes back to a Supreme
Court case. It's in the late 19th century, Santa Clara County v.
Southern Pacific Railroad. What was that case about essentially?
WITT: So, this is a case where the Occupy Wall Street protestors have
distorted the details, but they really have it right in spirit. That was
a case in which the Southern Pacific Railroad was protesting taxes that
had been placed on it by California and by counties in California. And
in that case, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court,
Morrison Waite, stood up in January of 1886 and said what pretty much
everybody in the courthouse thought, which was that corporations were
persons for the purposes of the 14th Amendment.
BLOCK: The 14th Amendment dating from right after the Civil War, the
Equal Protection Clause is what we're talking about.
WITT: Yeah, the Equal Protection Clause applies to all persons. It
provides that all persons have a right to equal protection under the
laws. And that question wasn't controversial at the time. What mattered,
really, was what happened later.
BLOCK: Meaning, what exactly?
WITT: What the court started to do around the turn of the 20th century
and into the 20th century was to begin to force legislatures at the
state level and the federal Congress to treat metaphysical persons, that
is to say corporations, the same as natural persons for purposes of
contracting and rights to property.
BLOCK: And more recently in this century, we do see the term corporate
personhood also applied to the landmark Citizens United case, the
Supreme Court lifting restrictions on corporate spending for political
campaigns. Was that case also argued on these same grounds of corporate
WITT: Well, for the Citizens United case, corporate personhood wasn't
required for purposes of the majority's decision to strike down the
regulations on campaign spending. Corporate personhood was invoked by
the four dissenters in Citizens United. What the dissenters said was
that the differences, which are very real, of course, between natural
persons and metaphysical persons or corporations might be a good reason
to distinguish between natural persons and corporations for purposes of
BLOCK: Well, Professor Witt, I wonder what you think when protestors in
Occupy Wall Street talk about ending corporate personhood. What would
that mean from a legal point of view?
WITT: I don't think we'd want to end corporate personhood in the sense
that ordinary people, including people in the Occupy Wall Street
movement, may want to get together and form groups, which should have
respect of the legal process.
What we might want to do, and this is what
the Occupy Wall Street folks have right, is recognize the different
characteristic features of large groups invested with powerful amounts
of capital in our political process.
What Waite was attentive to in 1886 in the Santa Clara County case was
that corporations didn't have to be treated the same as natural persons.
They were metaphysical persons. And that fact was something that the law
could take into account.
BLOCK: I've been talking with Professor John Witt. He teaches law and
history at Yale Law School. Professor Witt, thanks so much.
WITT: Thank you.