Judge Says Corporate Person Should Be Held Responsible

Here’s a story that will warm the hearts of all who think more should be done to hold corporations responsible for their bad behaviour:

“Judge Rejects Plea Deal on Guidant Heart Device”

A federal judge in Minnesota on Tuesday rejected a plea agreement between the federal government and the Guidant Corporation, saying that the deal did not hold the company sufficiently accountable for an episode in which it sold potentially flawed heart defibrillators.

Judge Frank said that prosecutors should have sought probation for Guidant and its parent, Boston Scientific….

Hey, but wait! This judge is treating Guidant — a corporation — like it’s a person or something. But that’s clearly crazy, right? I mean, “probation”? How can you put something like a corporation on probation?

Remember all the hullabaloo over the Citizens United case back in January? (One of my blog entries on the topic is here.) In that decision, the US Supreme Court effectively expanded the free speech rights of corporations and unions. Much of the criticism of that decision was leveled at the Court’s implicit assumption that corporations are in some sense “persons.” Critics claimed that rights can only be held by persons (which is perhaps true), and being a person meant being a human (which is not necessarily true) and if we admit that corporations are persons, then there’s nothing to stop them from having the right to vote, adopt children, etc. (which is utterly false).

The Guidant case cited above provides a nice illustration of how important it is for corporations to be treated as legal persons — as entities with some range of rights and responsibilities. Now, as I emphasized in the aftermath of the Citizens United case, to think of corporations as persons is not in any way to argue for a specific set of rights or responsibilities. There’s plenty of room for debate about just which rights and which responsibilities make sense. Not all persons have exactly the same range of rights and responsibilities. (Compare adult persons with infant persons, for example.) But there’s no denying that if you want to hold corporations responsible for their behaviour — behaviour that might not be attributable to any particular executive, or at least to any executive still with the company — you need for courts to be able to see the organization as an entity, a person, in its own right.

1 comment so far

  1. Julie on

    Thanks for your insightful comments Dr MacDonald. I have a Business Ethics exam tomorrow and have been studying corporate responsibility for hours, I found your comments/opinion regarding how corporations should be treated as legal persons with a specific set of rights and responsibilities very enlightening.

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