Supreme Corporations

This is part of series of posts by recipients of the 2020 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Charlene Canning, WH ’23

The impacts of their decisions surround you. One corporation provides the transportation services used by many to travel every day, another one regularly donates to your local congressperson’s reelection campaigns and yet another one manufactures the device you are currently using. These decisions and their subsequent impacts are evidence of corporate personhood. Over the past two hundred years or so, corporations fought in United States courts for rights and privileges such as economic autonomy, protection of monetary expression and many others; benefits previously enjoyed exclusively by individual people.

This summer I had the opportunity to learn more about the evolution of corporate personhood while writing “Supreme Corporations: Impacts of Corporate Cases since 1886.” This research was primarily sponsored by the Wharton Summer Program for Undergraduate Research, a grant that funds student research related to economics.

I began my research by looking into early Supreme Court cases involving corporations.  I spent hours pouring over digital archives with scholarly reports—some of them written by the same people that would one day become the judges deciding the outcome of consequential corporate cases. I also referred to first-hand experiences from attorneys and uncovered the implicit political biases hidden in answers to questions asked by politicians during various confirmation hearings.

Eventually, I provided my own analysis and evaluation of the morality of corporate enfranchisement and what legal strategy may include in the future. Most of the paper analyzes historical and legal context to determine the impacts corporate law has on individual people. Throughout the paper, I adopt a lens of judicial realism to explain how corporate personhood is ultimately a feat that demonstrates the true potential of accountability in United States appellate courts.

In addition to legal information, time dedicated to poring over legal scholarship allowed me to explore various rhetorical strategies that I will take with me during my time at Penn and beyond. One strategy employed by corporate attorneys over the years has been to take advantage of the pathos provided by legislation originally crafted to address civil rights issues. An example of this is the legal trope of referring to the 14th Amendment and the accompanying motif of citizenship as a status that ought to be applied to corporations in a fashion equal to that of the application to individual people. Similar to this is the protection corporations refer to from the 1st Amendment is cases involving money in politics. The success of cases like these have resulted in precedents that reinforce the idea that corporations have access to the same rights and privileges as you and I.

The highlight of my summer was being able to spend more time with my family because there was no need to get a summer job to pay for research-related expenses or to save up for the upcoming school year. Time that would have been spent working was enjoyed with my energetic brothers, exchanging stories with my dad, and my favorite, cultivating the vegetable garden with the help of my mom. Truly invaluable is the fact that the generosity of Penn’s Career Services led to my experience this summer, which has solidified my aspiration to pursue a legal career.


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