A corporation is more nearly a method than a thing

Via Stephen Bainbridge, we find a nice quote about the corporation, from the New York case Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. v. Pierson, 130 Misc. 110, 119, 222 N.Y.S. 532, 543-44 (Sup. Ct. 1927):

[A] corporation is more nearly a method than a thing, and that the law in dealing with a corporation has no need of defining it as a person or an entity, or even as an embodiment of functions, rights and duties, but may treat it as a name for a useful and usual collection of jural relations, each one of which must in every instance be ascertained, analyzed and assigned to its appropriate place according to the circumstances of the particular case, having due regard to the purposes to be achieved.

Steve adds (paragraph breaks added):

There are two [interesting] points here.

First, to describe the corporation as “a useful and usual collection of jural relations,” sounds an awful lot like saying the corporation is a nexus of contracts.

Second, to say that the corporation’s status is “in every instance be ascertained, analyzed and assigned to its appropriate place according to the circumstances of the particular case,” sounds a lot like a point I made to KCRW’s Madeleine Brand. I argued that we grant the corporation constitutional status as a legal person in situations in which it is convenient to allow the fictional entity standing to represent the constitutional rights of its shareholders (and, in some cases, directors and managers). As the late Larry Ribstein explained, “corporate speech should be constitutionally protected only to the extent necessary to protect the rights of individuals connected with the corporation.”

I agree that the corporation shouldn’t be reified. A corporation is fictitious, just a convenient shorthand we use for people doing business together. Yes, the corporation has extra rights like limited liability, but that’s also just another way of saying that the state, in order to promote business activity, has given particular people special rights when they do business together, rights that they can exercise by filing a special form and observing particular formalities. People are always front and center.

Sasha Volokh lives in Atlanta with his wife and three kids, and is an associate professor at Emory Law School. He has written numerous articles and commentaries on law and economics, privatization, antitrust, prisons, constitutional law, regulation, torts, and legal history.

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