The Supreme Court concluded in 1909 that a corporation, like an individual, can be held criminally responsible for its misconduct. Yet even now, corporate-criminal liability has yet to overcome the same skeptical argument it faced then — and, for that matter, for centuries prior. The skeptic’s challenge appears as simple as it is persistent: Lacking a mind distinct and independent from its constitutive stakeholders, a corporation cannot produce the sorts of intentional attitudes needed to satisfy the law’s mens rea component. In other words, a corporation is straightforwardly incapable of satisfying one of criminal law’s most basic requirements. Accordingly, to the skeptic the very idea of corporate-criminal liability is, and always has been, pure nonsense.
Though it presents as a simple, common-sense challenge to a corporation’s ability to intend — criminally or otherwise — unpacking the skeptic’s critique quickly implicates profound considerations regarding the nature of personhood and proper methods of attribution. Animating the dispute between skeptics and proponents of corporate-criminal liability is a disagreement over how to evaluate personhood, and further how one’s conception of personhood licenses attributions of actions, attitudes, and ultimately responsibility to the entity in question. This brand of disagreement is nothing new: These themes recur throughout Western thought and extend far beyond corporate law, from Plato’s Phaedo to Boethius and Bartolus of Sassoferato, from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke. Given the intellectual lineage behind what is otherwise an ordinary policy disagreement, perhaps it should not be terribly surprising that skepticism about corporate-criminal liability was never put to rest.
I don’t expect that we can break this conceptual stalemate all at once, if at all, to solve the challenge facing corporate crime. More to the point, we don’t need to. As it turns out, in taking up this very dispute at the turn of the 20th century, courts and legislature sided with the proponents of corporate crime in a way that the skeptic cannot, or at least should not want to, unwind. The proponents of corporate-criminal liability did not just win the policy fight; they did so in a way that rendered the skeptic’s position incompatible with broader theoretical commitments that are now instrumental to the modern corporation.
This Article offers two contributions to the debate over corporate-criminal liability: one conceptual, and one practical. First, the same argument embraced by today’s skeptics was tried but rejected in the late 1800s, when the practice of holding corporations responsible first developed. Courts previously receptive to the skeptic’s reasoning abandoned the view — and more importantly, the relationship between personhood and attribution underwriting it — as increasingly untenable amidst a changing economic environment in which commercial corporations transformed from tiny, narrowly constrained, quasi-state entities to sprawling, sophisticated, dominant participants in the national marketplace. Meanwhile, the gradual embrace of corporate liability, both in tort and crime, is intimately connected to the simultaneous demotion of corporate law as a regulatory tool. The turn towards corporate-criminal liability thus reflects a broader abandonment both of a long-dominant conception of personhood and of an approach to corporate regulation rendered ineffective by the development of what has become the basis for our modern corporate law. In a slogan, corporations today are persons under the criminal law not because they have always been eligible, but rather because they became eligible.
Second, a clear theoretical understanding of how and why courts first held corporations criminally responsible has profound consequences for how and why we continue to hold them responsible today. Most directly, recognizing the conditions under which corporations became persons for the purposes of criminal law removes from contemporary debates one complaint with modern practice, and does so without having to resolve some deep metaphysical truth about the ultimate nature of personhood. Today’s skeptic of corporate capacities presupposes an outdated premise about how capacities should be attributed to a person, the abandonment of which is pivotal to creating and maintaining modern corporate law and today’s commercial corporation. Taking seriously the skeptic’s position, on this discovery, threatens to undermine the conceptual foundation integral to a regulatory framework making commercial corporations what they are today. In addition, taking seriously courts’ actual reasoning in holding corporations criminally responsible unearths both a method and rationale for continuing to do so, which is rooted in a constellation of fairness considerations towards individuals that, although mostly lost to history, nevertheless applies more strongly today than ever before. Commitment to this qualified anti-discrimination norm applies at least as powerfully today as it did a century ago: Far from being a once-excusably incoherent, now-superfluous practice, corporate-criminal liability has as much reason to exist today as it did upon inception.