Citizens United as Bad Corporate Law

Jonathan R. Macey is the Sam Harris Professor of Corporate Law, Corporate Finance & Securities Law at Yale Law School; and Leo E. Strine, Jr. is Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, the Austin Wakeman Scott Lecturer on Law and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance. This post is based on their recent paper. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Shining Light on Corporate Political Spending and Corporate Political Speech: Who Decides?, both by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert Jackson (discussed on the Forum here and here), and Corporate Politics, Governance, and Value Before and after Citizens United by John C. Coates.

In our paper Citizens United as Bad Corporate Law, we show that Citizens United v. FEC, arguably the most important First Amendment case of the new millennium, is predicated on a fundamental misconception about the nature of the corporation. Specifically, Citizens United v. FEC (558 U.S. 310 (2010), which prohibited the government from restricting independent expenditures for corporate communications, and held that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights to engage in political spending as human citizens, is grounded on the erroneous theory that corporations are “associations of citizens” (See 558 U.S. 310 at 356) rather than what they actually are: independent legal entities distinct from those who own their stock.

Our contribution to the literature on Citizens United is that the case is as much a case about corporate law, as it is about the First Amendment. The major disagreement among the justices in Citizens United is about the applicability of settled First Amendment protections to a particular juridical entity, the corporation.

In Citizens United, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority opines that Congress may not take into account the distinctions between corporations and human beings in regulating political speech, and that corporations must be permitted the same freedom to speak as human beings. In dissent, Justice Stevens fails directly to challenge Justice Kennedy’s existential conception of the corporation notwithstanding the fact that that it constitutes the core of the majority opinion. This paper fills that void. We reject the Citizens United majority’s conception of the corporation as an “associations of citizens” and reaffirm its status as an artificial, metaphysical, and legal construct that exists separate and apart from its investors.

The Citizens United view of the corporation as an association of individuals is inconsistent with the established conception of the corporation as a juridical entity with limited liability. This conception confuses the corporation with the general partnership form of business organization. In fact, the entire point of the incorporation process is to permit the creation of a legal entity that is not an association of individuals, but rather a discrete legal entity whose rights and obligations are distinct from those of it its creators, investors, managers, and other constituents.

We base our argument that corporations are separate and distinct legal entities and that they are not “associations of citizens” as Citizens United asserts on three facts about the corporate form: (1) the treatment of corporations as separate legal entities is what distinguishes corporations from general partnerships and sole proprietorships and what justifies the legal notion of “limited liability” and other central characteristics of the corporate form, such as the ability to contract and to sue and be sued; (2) corporations do not have owners, they have investors who have contract-based, financial interests in the firms and limited management rights; and (3) corporations are not fiction, but fact only because the law makes them real and distinct entities with a legal identity.

In Part I of this paper, we discuss the nature of the corporate form by describing its core attributes and explain that one must infer from the nature of the corporate form itself that the corporation is an entity, not an association of individuals. In Part II, we expand upon the analysis in Part I by examining certain settled legal characteristics that the Supreme Court has itself recognized to distinguish the corporation from other forms of business organization that can more plausibly be viewed as associations of individuals. We conclude Part II by noting a simple, empirical reality that cuts against Citizens United’s conception of the corporation as an “association of citizens”: stockholders are not owners of the corporation, but rather contract claimants.

In Part III, we discuss the reality that in most other areas of its jurisprudence the Supreme Court embraces the traditional entity view of the corporation, and does not treat corporations as associations of citizens. Thus, Citizens United and its progeny are outliers, in tension with the Supreme Court’s decisional law in key areas like standing, tax law, criminal law, and other areas of constitutional law. Our analysis shows that in the great bulk of its jurisprudence, the Supreme Court adheres to our view of the business corporation, which is that it is a distinct legal entity whose rights and obligations are subject to statutory constraint. In fact, by long tradition, starting under Chief Justice Marshall, corporations are the opposite of Lockean-Jeffersonian human beings endowed with inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by the government. By contrast, corporations have only those rights society gives them by statutory law, and any statutory law may take into account the unique nature of corporations in limiting their ability to act.

We then point out in Part IV profound problems with Citizen United’s assertion that corporations are “associations of citizens.” Namely, that assertion comes without supporting legal authority and for good reason. Neither the law nor empirical fact supports the idea that stockholders are associated citizens, much less with any common political or social viewpoint.

Part V then notes the stark difference in the Supreme Court’s approach when dealing with the free speech of labor unions. In the union context, the Supreme Court’s principal concern has been ensuring that no union member has his dues used for political speech without his express authorization, and has held that it is a First Amendment violation to use union dues for political speech. (See Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 431 U.S. 209, 240–42 (1977). Just this year, in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council, the Court went further and held that unions could not even collect fees for the costs due to the core costs of bargaining for higher wages from a workforce member who did not join the union. (138 S. Ct. 2448, 2486 (2018). In McCain-Feingold, Congress embraced concerns like this and gave corporations the ability to engage in political speech by raising funds voluntarily from stockholders for this purpose. This means took into account the corporate law consensus that stockholders’ decision to invest in business corporations does not rationally involve any authorization for the corporation to use treasury funds for political speech, and that stockholders are of diverse political viewpoints and only have a shared interest in one thing, getting a good return on their investment. But, applying a starkly different viewpoint than it takes in cases like Abood and Janus, the Supreme Court struck down McCain-Feingold and trivialized the substantial leeway McCain-Feingold had given for corporations to speak. In analyzing this contradiction, we identify the market realities that make it even less plausible that 21st century American business corporations can be deemed “associations of citizens,” especially when most of their stock is owned by institutional investors, to whom American investors are in essence compelled to turn over their capital to save for college for their kids and retirement for themselves.

Finally, in Part VI we comment on the lack of any source for the Citizens United majority’s view that the corporation is an association of individuals. In particular, we observe that corporations are creatures of state law, not federal law. As the Court observed in CTS Corp. v. Dynamics Corp., “[s]tate regulation of corporate governance is regulation of entities whose very existence and attributes are a product of state law.” (481 U.S. 69, 89 (1987). Therefore, determinations about the nature of the corporation, such as whether the corporation is a distinct juridical entity or an association of individuals, should be made by reference to state law, not federal law. To further this point, we survey those forms of entities that might be more plausibly considered associational in form than corporations, and note that in the main, most of them are trending strongly toward the entity conception. After doing so, we address those corporations most rationally considered to be vehicles for the shared viewed points of those who form them: non-profit corporations. As to them, we highlight two features that buttress our core point. To wit, most non-profit corporations are member corporations and do not even have stockholders. And as important, these corporations do not fund their speech using the entrusted capital of their members or stockholders. Rather, they speak using funds they raise specifically for that purpose from donors—exactly the method that Congress left open to corporations in McCain-Feingold and that the Citizens United majority said constituted a total ban on corporate speech.

We conclude by noticing an irony. It was the legislative branch, not the judicial branch that is supposedly more learned in the law, that was the one that understood corporate law when addressing political speech. Congress considered the nature of corporations when enacting McCain-Feingold and took into account that corporations are not associations of citizens, but separate, state-created entities formed for reasons that cannot be rationally attributed to the shared political or philosophical views of their investors. As such, Congress allowed corporations broad freedom to engage in political speech, but only by using funds voluntarily contributed for this purpose by stockholders to a corporate-controlled political action committee (PAC). By this means, Congress left ample room for the corporation to act as a collective vehicle for stockholders who wished to affiliate for that purpose, but protected other stockholders from being forced to subsidize speech that the mere decision to invest cannot plausibly be thought to endorse. By contrast, the Supreme Court ignored, or misunderstood, the traditional corporate law concept of the corporation and thereby subjected millions of American investors to suffer the involuntary use of their entrusted capital for speech that has no rational connection to their decision to buy stock. That is bad corporate law making bad constitutional law.

The complete paper is available here.

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