The Writ of Error is a second writ to the Supreme Court that may be used for a defense should a state or municipality choose to not recognize corporate personhood. Much of the material is quoted from the work of Thomas Hartmann and his book, The Theft of Human Rights.
Is the Santa Clara County v. The Southern Pacific Railway decision of 1886 invalid due to procedural errors?
Facts of the Case
For years prior to 1886, Santa Clara County, California had been taxing land and the rights-of-way of the Southern Pacific Railroad. For the past six years the railroad had refused to pay, claiming the taxation was improper. Taxes owed were $30,000 on a $30 million mortgage. One of the railroad’s defenses was that the assessment by the State of California included the value of the fences along the right-of-way. The railroad claimed that the County should have assessed the value of the fences, not the state. The railroad withheld all its taxes. The Court of Appeals for the? Circuit rejected the county’s claim and the case found its way to the Supreme Court. One of the defenses used by the railroad was the Fourteenth Amendment. The railroad said:
The provision of the laws of the Constitution and the laws of California…are in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, in so far as they require the assessment of their property at its full money value, without making deduction as in the case of railroads that are operated in only one county, and of other corporations, and of natural persons, for the value of the mortgages…
The Court found for the railroad. The Supreme Court Reporter, J. C. Bancroft Davis, wrote in the headnotes the following:
The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section I of the Fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.the main – and almost only – questions discussed by counsel in the elaborate arguments related to the constitutionality of the taxes. This court, in its opinion passed by these questions, and decided the cases on the questions whether under the constitution and the laws of California, the fences on the line of the railroads should have been valued and assessed, if at all, by the local officers or by the State Board of Equalization…. One of the points made and discussed at length in the brief of counsel for defendants in error was that ‘Corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.’
The actual decision delivered by Justice Harlan begins by stating explicitly that the Supreme Court is not, in this case, ruling on the Constitutional question of corporate personhood under the Fourteenth Amendment or any other amendment.
Before deliberations began, Chief Justice Waite said:
The court does not wish to hear argument on the question of whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.
We believe the Santa County V. Southern Pacific Railroad decision should be reversed for the following reasons:
1. No laws were ever passed by Congress at that time (1886) granting that corporations should be treated under the constitution the same as a living, breathing person.
2. None have ever been passed since that time.
3. Corporate personhood except as an artificial person in not a concept drawn from older English law.
4. No court decisions state or federal have ever held that corporations were “persons” instead of “artificial persons.”
5. The Supreme Court did not rule in this case or in any other case on the issue of the equality of corporate personhood with humans except in reference to the Santa Clara decision. Where corporate personhood is mentioned it is always in reference to the Santa Clara decision and fails to distinguish between natural and artificial persons. 1
6. The Santa Clara decision was based on other criteria than corporate personhood. The Court in its decision stated: …the entire assessment is a nullity, upon the ground that the state board of equalization included…property [the fences], which it was without jurisdiction to assess for taxation.
7. Blackstone says, “persons are divided by the law into either natural persons or artificial. Natural persons are such as the God of nature formed us; artificial are such as created and devised by human laws for the purposes of society and government, which are called corporations or bodies politic.”
8. “The statement that corporations were persons rather than artificial persons with an equal footing under the Bill of Rights as humans was in no way a formal ruling of the court. It was rather a simple statement by the Chief Justice that was recorded by the court Reporter in the headnotes.”
9. Headnotes are not of the same standing as formal decisions. They are not law but merely a comment by another who does not have the authority to determine law. Nor are headnotes precedential.
10. “There was no public debate by the justices nor was there any discussion in open court on this issue.”
11. Justice Hugo Black speaking 50 years later said, “I do not believe the word ‘person’ in the Fourteenth amendment includes corporations…neither the history, or the language of the fourteenth Amendment justifies the belief that corporations are included within it protection.”
12. Justice William Douglas also stated, “There was no history, logic or reason given to support that view [that corporations are legally ‘persons’].”
13. Senator Roscoe Conkling testified in an earlier 1882 case of the railroads against San Mateo County that while he was a member of the Senate committee that drafted the Fourteenth amendment in 1868, he intentionally inserted the word “person” instead of the correct legal phrase, “natural person,” ‘to ensure that corporations would one day receive the same civil rights Congress was giving to slaves.’ House Representative, John A. Bingham, also did the same.
14. In the Santa Clara case, Chief Justice Waite responded to request for clarification from Court Reporter Davis saying, “I think your mem. In the California Railroad tax case expresses with sufficient accuracy what was said before the argument began. I leave it to you to determine whether anything need be said about it in the report inasmuch as we avoided meeting the constitutional question in the decision.”
15. There are reasons that suggest that due to illness and an early death, Chief Justice Waite never knew what Davis had written in his name and therefore never had a chance to clarify or refute those headnotes.
Therefore in light of the above arguments, the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case should be reversed.
1 In several cases including First National Bank v. Bellotti [435 U.S. 765 (1978)], footnote 15 states: It has been settled for almost a century that corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific R. Co., [118 U.S. 394 (1886)]; see Covington & Lexington Turnpike R. Co. v. Sandford, [164 U.S. 578 (1896)}.
With all due respect to Justice Powell and other Justices, they are wrong. Neither case in its formal opinion states that corporations are natural persons. The Covington decision does say that it is clear that corporations are persons but does not distinguish between natural and artificial persons.