Chronological list of Supreme Court decisions related to legal personhood and money as an expression of speech.


Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819)
The Court ruled that the College’s corporate charter qualified as a contract between private parties, the King and the trustees, with which the legislature could not interfere. Even though the United States are no longer royal colonies, the contract is still valid because the Constitution says that a state cannot pass laws to impair a contract.

Slaughterhouse Cases (1873)
“It is quite clear, then, that there is a citizenship of the United States, and a citizenship of a State, which are distinct from each other, and which depend upon different characteristics or circumstances in the individual. We think this distinction and its explicit recognition in this amendment of great weight in this argument, because the next paragraph of this same section, which is the one mainly relied on by the plaintiffs in error, speaks only of privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, and does not speak of those of citizens of the several States.”

Minor v. Happersett (1875)
The Minor v. Happersett ruling was based on an interpretation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court readily accepted that Minor, a woman, was a citizen of the United States, but it held that the constitutionally protected privileges of citizenship did not include the right to vote.

Butcher’s Union Co. v. Crescent City Co. (1884)
The power of a state legislature to make a contract of such a character that, under the provisions of the Constitution, it cannot be modified or abrogated does not extend to subjects affecting public health or public morals so as to limit the future exercise of legislative power on those subjects to the prejudice of the general welfare.

Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886)
The headnote, a summary written for the official record after a case is decided, incorrectly stated that the Justices unanimously agreed that corporations were considered persons under the Fourteenth Amendment. Legal personhood got a foothold when the headnote was cited as precedent in the cases of Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania and Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway v. Beckwith.

Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania (1888)
“A private corporation is included under the designation of ‘person’ in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, section I.”

Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway v. Beckwith (1889)
“Corporations are persons within the meaning of the clauses in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution concerning the deprivation of property, and concerning the equal protection of the laws.”

Noble v. Union River Logging (1893)
“A revocation of the approval of the secretary of the interior, however, by his successor in office, was an attempt to deprive the plaintiff of its property without due process of law, and was, therefore, void.”

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
The Court upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal,” warping the mechanism of the equal representation under the law and denying African-Americans full access to the rights granted to them with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Lochner v. New York (1905)
The Court held that a “liberty of contract” was implicit in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Hale v. Henkel (1906)
“A corporation is but an association of individuals with a distinct name and legal entity, and, in organizing itself as a collective body, it waives no appropriate constitutional immunities, and, although it cannot refuse to produce its books and papers, it is entitled to immunity under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, and, where an examination of its books is not authorized by an act of Congress, a subpoena duces tecum requiring the production of practically all of its books and papers is as indefensible as a search warrant would be if couched in similar terms.”

Armour Packing Co. v. United States (1908)
The Court extended the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial in a criminal case to corporations.

Dodge v. Ford Motor Co. (1919) (PDF) [Michigan State Supreme Court]
The Michigan Supreme Court held that a business corporation is organized primarily for the profit of the stockholders, as opposed to the community or its employees. The discretion of the directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end, and does not extend to the reduction of profits or the non-distribution of profits among stockholders in order to benefit the public.

Newberry v. United States (1921)
The Court held that the United States Constitution did not grant the United States Congress the authority to regulate political party primaries or nomination processes. The court struck down 1911 amendments to the Federal Corrupt Practices Act which placed spending limits on candidate and political election committee spending in primaries or other nomination processes for federal office.

Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon (1922)
The Court ruled that whether a regulation constitutes a taking depends on the diminution of the value of the property. The takings clause originally applied to the physical taking or seizing of property. This changed established precedent that the regulation of land was not a taking and was simply the use of the government’s police power to protect the community.

Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee (1933)
“Corporations are as much entitled to the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment as are natural persons.”

West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937)
The Court flatly declared that the “Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract” and that such a freedom is thus “a qualified, and not an absolute, right” under the Fourteenth Amendment.

United States v. Classic (1941)
The Court ruled that the United States Constitution empowered Congress to regulate primary elections and political party nominations and procedures — but only in cases where state law made primaries and nominations part of the election and/or whenever the primary effectively determined the outcome of the election.

NAACP v. Alabama (1958)
After the circuit court issued a restraining order, the state issued a subpoena for various records, including the NAACP’s membership lists. The Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s demand for the lists had violated the right of due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Fong Foo v. United States (1962)
The Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment prevented the federal government from bringing a defendant, even a legal fiction, to trial twice for the same charge, applying the double-jeopardy principle to corporations for the first time.

NAACP v. Button (1963)
“Petitioner challenges the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals on many grounds. But we reach only one: that Chapter 33, as construed and applied, abridges the freedoms of the First Amendment, protected against state action by the Fourteenth. More specifically, petitioner claims that the chapter infringes the right of the NAACP and its members and lawyers to associate for the purpose of assisting persons who seek legal redress for infringements of their constitutionally guaranteed and other rights. We think petitioner may assert this right on its own behalf, because, though a corporation, it is directly engaged in those activities, claimed to be constitutionally protected, which the statute would curtail. Cf. Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233. We also think petitioner has standing to assert the corresponding rights of its members.”

See v. City of Seattle (1967)
“It is now settled that, when an administrative agency subpoenas corporate books or records, the Fourth Amendment requires that the subpoena be sufficiently limited in scope, relevant in purpose, and specific in directive so that compliance will not be unreasonably burdensome. 5 The agency has the right to conduct all reasonable inspections of such documents which are contemplated by statute, but it must delimit the confines of a search by designating the needed documents in a formal subpoena. In addition, while the demand to inspect may be issued by the agency, in the form of an administrative subpoena, it may not be made and enforced [387 U.S. 541, 545] by the inspector in the field, and the subpoenaed party may obtain judicial review of the reasonableness of the demand prior to suffering penalties for refusing to comply.”

Ross v. Bernhard (1970)
The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in stockholders’ derivative actions in which the corporation would be entitled to a jury trial.

Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
The Court upheld a federal law which set limits on campaign contributions, but ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, and struck down portions of the law.

“A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached. [n18] This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.”

VA State Board of Pharmacy v. VA Citizens Consumer Council (1976)
Commercial speech, like other forms of speech, is protected speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. But, commercial speech may be regulated provided that they are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they serve a significant governmental interest, and in doing so they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.

First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978)
In the majority opinion, Justice Lewis Powell ruled that a Massachusetts criminal statute prohibiting the expenditure of corporate funds for “influencing or affecting” voters’ opinions infringed on corporations’ “protected speech in a manner unjustified by a compelling state interest.”

Marshall v. Barlow’s, Inc. (1978)
The Court held that a provision in the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) that permitted inspectors to enter premises without a warrant to inspect for safety hazards and violations of OSHA regulations violated the Fourth Amendment.

Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990)
The Court upheld the restriction on corporate speech based on the notion that “corporate wealth can unfairly influence elections,” and the Michigan law still allowed the corporation to make contributions from a segregated fund.

International Dairy Food Association MIF v. Amestoy (1996)
The right not to speak inheres in political and commercial speech alike and extends to statements of fact as well as statements of opinion. “Because we find that the dairy manufacturers are entitled to an injunction on First Amendment grounds, we do not reach their claims made pursuant to the Commerce Clause.”

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)
The Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. The decision overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and partially overruled McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.

“Austin is overruled, and thus provides no basis for allowing the Government to limit corporate independent expenditures. Hence, §441b’s restrictions on such expenditures are invalid and cannot be applied to Hillary. Given this conclusion, the part of McConnell that upheld BCRA §203’s extension of §441b’s restrictions on independent corporate expenditures is also overruled.”

SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission (2010) [U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit]
“In January 2008, the Federal Election Committee (FEC) issued a draft advisory opinion concluding that under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), SpeechNow would be required to organize as a ‘political committee’ as defined by 2 U.S.C. § 431(4) and would be subject to all the requirements and restrictions concomitant with that designation. Keating and four other individuals availed themselves of 2 U.S.C. § 437h, under which an individual may seek declaratory judgment to construe the constitutionality of any provision of FECA. As required by that provision, the district court certified the constitutional questions directly to this court for en banc determination. Thereafter, the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010), which resolves this appeal. In accordance with that decision, we hold that the contribution limits of 2 U.S.C. § 441a(a)(1)(C) and 441a(a)(3) are unconstitutional as applied to individuals’ contributions to SpeechNow.”

Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett (2011)
Arizona’s matching funds scheme, which provides additional funds to a publicly funded candidate when expenditures by a privately financed candidate and independent groups exceed the funding initially allotted to the publicly financed candidate, substantially burdens political speech and is not sufficiently justified by a compelling interest to survive First Amendment scrutiny.

American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock (2012)
Whether Montana is bound by the holding of Citizens United, that a ban on corporate independent political expenditures is a violation of the First Amendment, when the ban applies to state, rather than federal, elections.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (Pending)
[From SCOTUSBlog] Giving itself the option of changing its mind on government power to limit campaign contributions, the Supreme Court…set the stage for review of the constitutionality of a specific donation ceiling set by federal law, but a larger issue looms in the background. Since the Court’s landmark opinion in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, it has always given government more leeway to control contributions to candidates or political organizations than over spending by candidates or by independent political activists. That differing constitutional treatment potentially is at stake in the new case.