"A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law…. Its immortality no more confers on it political power, or a political character, than immortality would confer such power or character on a natural person.” So wrote Chief Justice John Marshall in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) 17 U.S. 518, 636.
John Marshall’s sentiments may have been on Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s mind in her debut appearance at oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The issue before the court was whether the campaign finance law limiting corporate donations violated a corporation’s First Amendment rights. 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."
And Justice Sotomayor may have found a like mind in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said, "A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights."
Thought-provoking comments like these do not necessarily indicate how a justice will vote on an issue, but the justices raise a good point. The attributes corporations have as persons are created by statute. Corporations can own property and sue and be sued, but they can’t sue for emotional distress or loss of consortium. Why? Because they really are not persons. They are simply substitutes for persons, sometimes.
And this got me thinking about my, I mean our, two cats. Some people can’t stand seeing other people, particularly those without children, fawn over animals. They contemptuously refer to these animals as “children substitutes.”
My wife, Barbara, rejects the notion of cats as child substitutes. “They are simply cats.” My response: “So why do we fret about them and attend to all their needs?”
I think it boils down to this. Just as a corporation may be treated like a person for some purposes, so may a cat be treated like a child for some purposes. But we all know that a corporation is not really a person, and a cat it is not really a child. I mean you don’t burp a kitten. You may play ball with it, but you don’t take it to a ball game.
And, if you are a little crazy, you may have a birthday party for it when it is one year old, which translates into around seven human years. Then you can go crazy deciding who to invite‑‑ Other neighborhood cats? A few small dogs? An eccentric neighbor or two? And what about presents?
Even the nitwits who throw parties for their pets figure out the whole thing is a farce when they wind up buying all the presents. (Parenthetic tip: Cats hate practical presents that benefit their owners. Collars and kitty litter are out. Catnip or a toy to moisten in their spit is preferable.)
Recently a journalist with apparently nothing to write about sought to interview professionals about the difficulty of raising children and attending to their professions. Somehow she got my name. The journalist thought a story about a presiding justice and his children would be of great interest to the reading public. She called me at a time when I was feeling particularly close to my cats, I mean, our cats. Barbara has often reminded me that they are “our” cats, not mine alone. That is true. In fact, I think she is their favorite.
I agreed to the interview and suggested to Barbara that, because the cats are “ours,” she should participate. She looked at me in what I would charitably call an expression of disbelief, and declined. She rejected out of hand my cat-corporation comparison. I decided to be interviewed alone, but assured Barbara that I would refer to the cats as “our” children. She said that would not be necessary and extracted a promise that under no circumstances would I mention her name. Ladies and Gentlemen of my readership, you are instructed to disregard the name “Barbara,” and not to consider it in your discussions, deliberations, evaluations or thoughts about this column.
The interview took place at a posh restaurant on the exclusive “Westside” of Los Angles. The interview began over an endive salad with blue cheese crumbles, walnuts, grapefruit slices and a subtle vinaigrette dressing. It was concluded before dessert. What follows is my best recollection of the interview:
Journalist- So how many children do you have?
Journalist- How old are they?
Me- (a pause‑‑not to be confused with paws‑‑sorry, couldn't help that) Around 20.
Journalist- Around 20?
Me- You get busy; you lose track. Let’s just say 20.
Journalist- (a quizzical look on her face) O.K…. Around 20. (a pause) What is the date of their birth?
Me- I can’t really say. We got them a few months after they were born.
Journalist- (brightening) So you adopted them?
Me- Yes, you might say we did.
Journalist- So they are twins?
Me- No, they are brothers.
Journalist- (about to pursue the matter, but thinking better of it, moves to a new topic) What are their names?
Me- Tatum and Powell.
Journalist- They sound like last names.
Me- They are. I named them after two of my favorite jazz pianists, Art Tatum and Bud Powell.
Journalist- Are your boys musical?
Me- I wouldn’t say so. But one likes to sit on the piano when I play.
Journalist- Describe them to me.
Me- Well, they are frisky, curious, and they are black.
Journalist- Black? (pause, not sure how to proceed) Were they adopted from Africa?
Me- No, their parents live in the U.S.
Journalist- What do you know about their mother?
Me- Not much. I was told that she gave birth while living in an empty lot next to a freeway off-ramp.
Journalist- (heeding her inner voice to develop another line of questioning) What, with your professional duties, have you and your wife been able to devote sufficient attention to your sons?
Me- We have done our best. They seem happy and carefree.
Journalist- The optimism of youth. Your sons are in their 20’s. Do they have romantic relationships, girlfriends, boyfriends?
Me- Not a chance.
Journalist- Not a chance?
Me- They have limited contacts with other….
Journalist- (interrupting) You are a strict father.
Me- I am just concerned about their safety.
Journalist- I appreciate that, but you can only protect them so much.
Me- I suppose that’s true. I shouldn’t be that concerned. After all, they are fixed.
Journalist- Fixed in their ways?
Me- Yes, you could say so, but at least they have no interest in the opposite sex.
Journalist- (getting red in the face and opting yet again for another line of questions) What are the things you like and dislike about your sons?
Me- What I like is that they respect the house and the furniture. And they sharpen their claws and teeth elsewhere.
Journalist- You mean they have their priorities in place.
Me- Yes. But their proclivity to pass back and forth in front of me is disquieting.
Journalist- Why would that be of concern?
Me- It brings bad luck.
Journalist- How so?
Me- Well, they are black.
Journalist- (becoming apoplectic) To… to imagine… that you… you, of all people, are a racist.
Me- A racist? What are you talking about? I just have this silly superstition thing that I am trying to deal with. I‘ll get over it.
Journalist- I must tell you that I’m dismayed to learn that you are a horrible parent without a clue how to raise a child.
Me- What do you mean? Our sons are well fed. They receive love and affection even when they don’t return it. Why, we even let them sleep with us. And on cold nights they crawl under the covers.
The journalist slapped her napkin down upon the table. I thought this was a good time to change the subject. I asked her what she thought about First Amendment rights for corporations. Without saying a word, she forcefully pushed her chair back, got up from the table and strode out of the restaurant. I had my dessert and coffee alone, and picked up the check.