The personal is political: Bipolar court says Jekyll-and-Hyde corporations are persons — except when they're not
On March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in the case known as Federal Communications Commission v AT&T, finding that corporations cannot assert personal privacy rights, at least insofar as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for government documents relating to corporate actions are concerned.
The case stems from a FOIA request by AT&T's competitors for documents the had FCC compiled during a 2004 investigation into claims that the recombinant communications behemoth had over-charged schools and libraries for their access to and use of the Internet.
Despite a series of legal findings against it in recent years, and unlike an actual human repeat offender, AT&T were as usual allowed to buy their way out of what amounted to a charge of defrauding the government — which any real human recidivist would likely have been convicted of and gone to jail for — by paying a mere $500,000 fine to settle the case without admitting any wrong-doing.
It then had the chutzpah to turn around and conveniently assert its alleged "personhood" status in an effort to block the government from releasing the documents, citing an exception in the FOIA law that prevents the disclosure of information that could cause embarrassment or an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia actually found in favor of AT&T, in a misguided — but at least consistent — ruling that the FOIA law (to say nothing of previous Supreme Court precedents, which they are required to follow as ostensibly settled case law) defines a legal "person" to include a non-human "partnership, association, or corporation."
Chief Justice John Roberts assigned himself to write the Supreme Court's opinion striking down the lower court ruling, but instead of using it as an opportunity to clarify the legal status of corporations as persons, he engaged in a pop etymology lesson reminiscent of the late William Safire's "On Language" column in the Sunday New York Times.
Ignoring the Court's own precedents (most recently in the Citizens United v FEC decision) that have repeatedly affirmed corporations' constitutional rights and freedoms (but not responsibilities) as legal persons, Roberts explained that this ruling was not based as one might expect on biology, sentience, or even such hallowed conservative legal doctrines such as "original intent" or "strict construction", but rather on the common meaning of the word "personal".
Although it is technically an adjective derived from the word "person", Roberts explained (as if teaching a middle school English class), in everyday parlance "personal" has come to be associated with the private lives of actual human beings — and since corporations clearly aren't real people, he said, they don't have personal lives and therefore can't have privacy rights either.
Neither Roberts nor any of the other justices bothered to explain why this same logic doesn't apply to other personal rights that various courts have granted corporations in the past, such as free speech (in Citizens United) or the supposed "right to lie", which Nike actually asserted in a case to defend its bogus claims about sweatshop labor in its factories.
Though not as utterly contrived as, say, Bush vs. Gore, the opinion will undoubtedly prove to be of little use the next time an actual live human being tries to cite it as a precedent for denying a corporation a right derived from its status as a legal person. Which makes it seem all the more like the legal equivalent of a sports make-up call ...