April 18th, 2014
On March 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in two cases—Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius—challenging the validity of the Affordable Care Act’s (“ACA”) mandate that employer-sponsored health plans cover all FDA-approved contraceptives (the “Contraceptive Mandate”). In each case, closely held plaintiff corporations contend that the Contraceptive Mandate illegally infringed upon the corporations’ freedom to exercise religion.
The cases attracted attention because the Supreme Court had agreed to hear yet another challenge to the validity of the ACA’s provisions, but it has been less noticed that both cases, and others like them, implicate a fundamental question that the Supreme Court has never decided; on what basis, if any, is a corporation a “person” entitled to assert the constitutional and statutory rights of natural persons. Without denying the significance of the challenge to the ACA’s Contraceptive Mandate, the Supreme Court’s failure to define a principled corporate person theory has had—and continues to have—important and pervasive implications for the American legal system beyond the present cases.
Typically, legal concepts creating and regulating societal rights and obligations, like the corporate personhood concept, come into being incrementally in an extended evolutionary process. That evolutionary process is characterized by a dialectic give and take in which the principles justifying—or precluding—application of the concept in a variety of different factual scenarios are gradually clarified, defined and developed through a series of judicial decisions. The problem confronting the Supreme Court as it considers the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases is that the concept of corporate personhood did not develop gradually or in an evolutionary process in which the meaning of the concept was developed and defined. Instead, the concept of the corporate person was imposed on the law ipse dixit, that is, by judicial fiat and without definition, in a series of late nineteenth century Supreme Court cases.Read the rest of this entry »