This Month in Legal History: Who Says Corporations are People?

On May 10, 1886, the United States Supreme Court decided County of Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.[1]  The main issue presented by the parties was whether certain taxes assessed by a state agency against the railroad company defendants violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court sidestepped that issue, disposing of the case on grounds that fences along the railway lines in question were “improvements,” not part of the “roadway,” and therefore were improperly included in the agency’s valuation of the railroad property.

The Supreme Court subsequently has cited County of Santa Clara for the proposition that corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment,[2] and the case has become a buttress for the legal fiction that corporations are persons.  The decision of the Court in County of Santa Clara, however, does not address the question, let alone reach such a holding.  Rather, the reporter of the Court included the following information in his summary of the case preceding the Court’s Opinion:

One of the points made and discussed at length in the brief of counsel for defendants in error was that “Corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”  Before argument

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE said: 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 of the opinion that it does.

The reporter’s position is administrative:  the current statute provides that the reporter’s job is to “prepare the decisions of the Court for publication in bound volumes and advance copies in pamphlet installments”.[3]  Indeed, the Court itself is clear that the reporter’s summary “is not the work of the court” but rather is “simply the work of the reporter, gives his understanding of the decision, and is prepared for the convenience of the profession in the examination of the reports”.[4]

— Duffy Graham


[1] 118 U.S. 394.

[2] E.g., Blake v. McClung, 172 U.S. 239, 259 (1898).

[3] 28 U.S.C. §673(c).

[4] United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co, 200 U.S. 321, 337 (1906).


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