Corporate person

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See also: Corporation

Corporate person (or legal person, juristic person) is a legal term used (mostly in the United States) to apply legal doctrines and political theories of individual rights to corporations and institutions. The idea stems largely from an 1886 Supreme Court Case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. It asserts that certain rights of natural persons, such as the right to political and other non-commercial free speech, also apply to corporations.

Supporters of this view see it as a reasonable and necessary accommodation of law and social reality, while opponents tend to see it as an illegitimate fiction based in a misreading of the evidence in the Santa Clara case and working to the detriment of the American democratic process. Opponents point to correspondence (Citation needed) between the judge in the case and the court reporter as evidence of a conspiracy by railroad operators to create a variant interpretation of the decision in the case, although how this affects the legitimacy of the doctrine of corporate personhood - which is currently fundamental to all U.S. corporate law - isn't entirely clear.

The doctrine arose as part of a larger historical shift in the meaning of corporations in U.S. history. It must be seen in the context of 19th century disagreements over rugged individualism and collectivism or "socialism" in an extremely broad sense. In the 18th and 19th century, the term was applied almost exclusively to public corporations used by governments for the establishment and financing of roads, bridges and other public works. Corporations were seldom used as vehicles for organizing business enterprise prior to the 20th century, the large enterprises put together by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Russell Sage and others were generally known as Trusts and were based generally in contract rather than corporate law.

Nonprofit corporate persons

The issue or corporate personhood has a somewhat different slant in the context of nonprofit corporations where the issue is less a matter of personal rights and more a question of establishing collective ownership of a bundle of assets, as in a nonprofit private colleges, hospitals, United Ways or human service organizations.