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Hoisted from Archives: A Short Dialogue on Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company

Stephen Bainbridge writes, apropos of (as best I can see) nothing at all: I don't read Kos or Brad DeLong or, for that matter, Brookings Institute position papers very often...

Let me say that in my view this is a serious mistake: reading people with whom one does not already agree is, after all, the only way one can can become smarter. Otherwise one becomes stupider every day.

As it happens, I do read Professor Bainbridge, and occasionally it provokes thoughts that I value--of which I think this is the best:

A Short Dialogue on Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company

John of Salisbury: I see that Brad DeLong is getting smacked down from the left and from the right.

Thrasymakhos: Something that would make the world a better place if it happened more often, but about what, exactly?

John of Salisbury: Well, DeLong wrote down an off-the-cuff list of ten "constitutional moments" when American judges had changed the law. Fourth on his list is:

  • The post-Civil War empowering of corporations with exorbitant privileges of citizenship and limited liability at the expense of government regulators and creditors.

Justinian: And?

Edward Coke: Nathan Newman accused him of Amnesia on the Death of Reconstruction--when the Grant administration was trying to suppress the anti-Negro terrorist insurgency in the U.S. South in the 1870s, the Supreme Court betrayed it and broke the legal tools it was using. Because the Supreme Court threw its weight onto the scales, Newman argues, the terrorists won.

Thrasymakhos: And what does DeLong say?

John of Salisbury: He wimps out. Something about the Supreme Court being a bit player--the main actors being executive and legislative.

Thrasymakhos: But the Supreme Court was active?

John of Salisbury: Very.

Thrasymakhos: Seems like Nathan has a fair point.

Justinian: And what else?

John of Salisbury: This is interesting. I can't claim to fully understand it. From the right, Stephen Bainbridge cheered on by Glenn Reynolds, takes aim at DeLong's example number 4:

I assume that DeLong's talking about the post-Civil war cases [like Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company].... Congress substituted the word "person" for the word "citizen" [in the text of the Fourteenth Amendment] precisely so that the provisions so affected would protect not just natural persons but also legal persons, such as corporations, from oppressive legislation.... (Admittedly... the legislative history is not uncontroverted.)...

The... cases establishing the corporation as a legal person with constitutional rights were (a) required by the legislative history of the 14th amendment and (b) made good policy sense. Hence, my conclusion that's you're "wrong" was intended to suggest that # 4 doesn't belong on your list. It was also intended to suggest that your rehetorical claim that the post-Civil War cases provided corporations with "exorbitant" privileges was, frankly, over the top. I should have thought that was apparent...

Justinian: I don't understand. Is Bainbridge defending the ruling of the Supreme Court in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company because the Court had a choice as to how to rule and chose the just result--the one that made "good policy sense"--or because the Court had no choice as to how to rule, being contrained by the plain meaning of the text?

Thrasymakhos: Neither.

Justinian: Neither?

Thrasymakhos: Neither. Notice that Bainbridge claims not that the Court was constrained by the meaning of the text, but by the legislative history of the amendment. He can't claim that the text requires his interpretation: it doesn't. And notice that Bainbridge cannot claim that justice alone--the fact that this interpretation would make "good policy sense"--is sufficient to justify his interpretation. That would mean that good judges are "activists" because they can make choices, and Bainbridge is certain that good judges aren't activists.

Edward Coke: No, that's not it at all. What good judges do is that they understand the law at a deeper level than other people. They see more clearly than others what the law always meant--but what their predecessors were too blurry-eyed to see.

Thrasymakhos: But the Fourteenth Amendment was then only sixteen years old.

Edward Coke: But the real Constitution--the Constitution that is true justice--had always included a Fourteenth Amendment. The drafters in 1787 had simply failed to see that it did. The life of the law, after all, is reason. The law that is written down is simply crystalized reason itself, to the extent that we can understand and follow it. So it had to be the case that true justice required and the properly-interpreted Fourteenth Amendment required that corporations be persons with the right to the equal protection of the laws. Anything else would be unreasonable.

John of Salisbury: Are you Edward Coke or G.F.W. Hegel?

Justinian: But this "required"? How can claims made about legislative history that are "not uncontroverted" "require" anything?

Edward Coke: Got me.

Justinian: How does this Fourteenth Amendment read?

Edward Coke: Like this:

Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens.... No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section. 2. Representatives shall be apportioned... counting the whole number of persons in each State....

Justinian: So if you have more corporations in your state, you get more representatives in the legislature?

John of Salisbury: No, no, no! "Persons" in Section 2 refers only to human beings...

Edward Coke: And "persons" at the start of Section 1 refers only to human beings...

John of Salisbury: Only "persons" at the end of Section 1 refers to legal persons, i.e. corporations, as well as human beings...

Justinian: If anybody had tried to place such a strained interpretation on one of my laws...

John of Salisbury: Yes. Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas had things to say about Bainbridge's "required":

Wheeling Steel Corporation v. Glander , 337 U.S. 562 (1949): Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK concurs, dissenting.

It has been implicit in all of our decisions since 1886 that a corporation is a 'person' within the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Santa Clara Co. v. South. Pacific R. Co.... [I]t wrote no opinion on the point.... There was no history, logic, or reason given to support that view.... The Fourteenth Amendment became a part of the Constitution in 1868. In 1871... Mr. Justice Woods (then Circuit Judge) held that 'person' as there used did not include a corporation.... [I]n 1873. Mr. Justice Miller... adverted to events 'almost too recent to be called history' to show that the purpose of the Amendment was to protect human rights--primarily the rights of a race which had just won its freedom....

[W]hat was clear to these earlier judges was apparently plain to the people who voted to make the Fourteenth Amendment a part of our Constitution.... There was no suggestion in [the amendment's] submission that it was designed to put negroes and corporations into one class and so dilute the police power of the States over corporate affairs....

[H]ow strained a construction it is of the Fourteenth Amendment so to hold.... It requires distortion to read 'person' as meaning one thing, then another within the same clause and from clause to clause....

History has gone the other way..... But now that the question is squarely presented I can only conclude that the Santa Clara case was wrong and should be overruled...

Edward Coke: And things get worse. If you look in Justice John Marshall Harlan's opinion in Santa Clara Co. v. South. Pacific R. Co. you see no holding that a corporation is a "person." The Court does not reach the question:

Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company: The special grounds of defense by each of the defendants were: (1) That its road... a... franchise... derived from the United States, cannot, without their consent, be subjected to state taxation. (2) That the provisions of the constitution and laws of California... are in violation of the fourteenth amendment... denying to it the equal protection of the laws....

Mr. Justice FIELD overruled the first of the special defenses... but sustained the second.... The propositions embodied in the conclusions reached in the circuit court... belong to a class which this court should not decide unless their determination is essential.... [If not,] there will be no occasion to consider the grave questions of constitutional law....

[T]he court below might have given judgment... upon the ground that the assessment... included property... the state board was without jurisdiction to assess.... As the judgment can be sustained upon this ground, it is not necessary to consider any other questions...

Justinian: So Harlan writes explicitly that the Supreme Court is not deciding this question, and people like Bainbridge assert that the Supreme Court did decide the question?

Edward Coke: Yep.

Justinian: Wow.


Justinian: But Bainbridge talks about the legislative history. He says the legislative history requires his reading of the Fourteenth Amendment.

John of Salisbury: Now we get to the interesting case of Roscoe Conkling. Roscoe Conkling claimed that the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment had used the word "persons" in the equal protection clause so that subsequent courts could use it to protect corporations from legislatures--and that the drafters had kept this secret throughout the ratification process, and that he was only now in 1882 revealing the true meaning of what the states had ratified.

Justinian: Under what theory of ratification is a Court "required" to adopt a secret meaning of a law--a meaning unknown to those who adopted it?

Edward Coke: Got me.

Justinian: If Roscoe Conkling had written an extra clause on the original of the Amendment text in invisible ink, and the Amendment had then been ratified, would Bainbridge say that the invisible ink text was a valid part of the Constitution?

Edward Coke: Got me.

Justinian: Is Bainbridge serious when he writes that this claim by Conkling "requires" that judges adopt Conkling's reading of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Edward Coke: Apparently.

Thrasymakhos: It gets worse: Conkling appears to have misquoted his own diary, and to have done so deliberately: Howard Jay Graham (1938) "The 'Conspiracy Theory' of the Fourteenth Amendment," Yale Law Journal.

Justinian: Your modern jurisprudents appear to be a scurvy lot.

Edward Coke: I cannot disagree.

John of Salisbury: It's your fault.

Edward Coke: My fault?!

John of Salisbury: Yes. You started this practice of pretending that what judges wanted to do was in fact what precedent demanded that they must do. You with your "Great Charter" business--the rights of Englishmen against arbitrary arrest dating back to 1215. If anybody had shown up before Queen Elizabeth I demanding that someone she held in the Tower be released because of the "Great Charter"--well you, you as her Speaker blocked a proposed reaffirmation of it, didn't you? But you wanted to curb the power of a Scottish-born king, and pretending that Magna Carta had always been good law since 1215, and that it had always applied not just to barons with knights in the field but to all crown subjects was just the tool you needed. Modern lawyers have a nasty habit of making false claims about the past--that such and such a reading is "required" because of the past--in the hope that their claims will be true about the future. And it's your fault.

Justinian: I'm still stuck at this "required by the legislative history" business...

Thrasymakhos: It doesn't make "sense." It's not supposed to make sense. It's simply a way of avoiding admitting that the post-Civil War Supreme Court made choices about how American corporate law was to develop, and those choices could have gone different ways...