By Brad Smith
Seven years after Citizens United, the whole “corporations aren’t people” and therefore shouldn’t have rights bit is getting pretty tiresome. Certainly, our elected officials should be held to a higher standard of debate.
Yes, it’s true that if you’ve never thought about it, the idea that “corporations are people” seems absurd on its face. Corporations are not people, of course. But, for many purposes, it makes perfect sense that the law treats them as such. For example, if the law did not treat corporations as people, they couldn’t be sued. The bigger point, though, is that corporations have rights because people have rights, and people form and own corporations. This is a principle as old as the American Republic, re-emphasized by the Supreme Court as early as 1819 in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. A corporation, the Court noted, “is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” But that didn’t mean that people gave up their rights when they formed a corporation. Rather, the decision emphasized that when people join together to accomplish things, they usually need some form of organization, and shouldn’t have to sacrifice their rights just because they organize.