Sotomayor & Corporate Rights:

Should the law treat corporations as legal persons? The newest justice may think not — or at least that's the impression some have drawn from a comment she made at the Citizens United oral argument last week. From the WSJ:

During arguments in a campaign-finance case, the court's majority conservatives seemed persuaded that corporations have broad First Amendment rights and that recent precedents upholding limits on corporate political spending should be overruled.

But Justice Sotomayor suggested the majority might have it all wrong — and that instead the court should reconsider the 19th century rulings that first afforded corporations the same rights flesh-and-blood people have.

Judges "created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons," she said. "There could be an argument made that that was the court's error to start with...[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics." . . .

Justice Sotomayor may have found a like mind in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights," Justice Ginsburg said, evoking the Declaration of Independence.

Sotomayor's remark cheered some, but not others.

"Progressives who think that corporations already have an unduly large influence on policy in the United States have to feel reassured that this was one of [her] first questions," said Douglas Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.

"I don't want to draw too much from one comment," says Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But it "doesn't give me a lot of confidence that she respects the corporate form and the type of rights that it should be afforded."

UPDATE: Larry Ribstein has more. His bottom line: "In a nutshell, viewing the corporation as an entity for First Amendment purposes actually serves to push the speech rights of owners and managers under a rug. Abandoning entity reasoning would focus on what matters for the First Amendment analysis. . . . once you do that, and put the arguments for limiting speech rights under an analytical spotlight, they look pretty weak."

SECOND UPDATE: Still more from Professor Bainbridge here.