The watershed moment came in 1886 when the Supreme Court ruled on a case called Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The case itself was not about corporate personhood, although many before it had been, and the Court had ruled that corporations were not persons under the 14th Amendment. Santa Clara, like many railroad cases, was about taxes. But before the Court delivered its decision, the following statement is attributed to Chief Justice Waite:
"The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the 14th 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 the opinion that it does."
The statement appeared in the header of the case in the published version, and the Court made its ruling on other grounds. How this statement appeared in the header of the case is a matter of some mystery and competing theories, but because it was later cited as precedent, corporate personhood became the accepted legal doctrine of the land.
Corporations acquired legal personhood at a time when all women, all Native Americans, and even most African American men were still denied the right to vote. And this was not an era of good feelings between the average person and corporations. It was the time of the robber barons, and the Supreme Court was filled with former railroad lawyers. It was the time of the Knights of Labor and the Populist movement. 1886 was the year of the Haymarket Massacre, the Great Southwestern Strike, and the next year the Pullman Strike. The people were struggling for real democracy and the wealthy ruling class did whatever it took to keep them down.
Great way to set Supreme Court precedent, eh? So, if the foundation of corporate personhood is... corrupt... established by a Supreme Court put in power by the corrupt corporations of the robber baron era, then we have to ask, "Is Corporate Personhood legitimate?"
Confused? You're not alone...
1. Abolish Corporate Personhood, Jan Edwards and Molly Morgan, May 20, 2004.