March 24, 2014
Corporate Law in the Supreme Court
Posted by Lyman Johnson

I thank Gordon and my other friends here for inviting me to write about Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood. I will not address the "substantial burden" or "compelling interest" aspects of the analysis, which I think will turn out to be decisive precisely because I believe the Court will recognize the two companies as having a free exercise right. In a later post I will address what I think are the intriguing possibilities of such a ruling for those of us who seek corporate reform(me from the right and many from the left) and will  argue that those who want real reform are backing the wrong pony if they side with the government in these two cases. But first to some straight corporate law points.

I think certain corporate statutory points have not been clearly made, or if they have been made, I missed them. I think the chief brief by Conestoga Wood does the best job but it still falls a bit short. Understanding these might obviate the extensive emphasis on the corporate separateness argument made by the 44 law professors and Stephen Bainbridge's reverse piercing rejoinder. What are these?

First, there is nothing in RFRA to suggest that Congress meant to displace or preempt state corporate law, here that of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. Numerous Supreme Court cases recognize that states endow corporations with the attributes they possess. Thus, not only does the federal Dictionary Act define a "person" to include a corporation, there is nothing to indicate a federal override of state law's role in defining corporateness. Using the Pennsylvania statute and Conestoga Wood as my example, what does that corporate statute say? First, like section 3.02 of the Model Business Corporation Act, the PA statute section 1501 states that a corporation shall have the same legal capacity of individuals to act But how does a corporation act? Through its board of directors, all the members of which must be natural persons. Thus PA section 1721, like section 8.01 of the Model Act, states that all CORPORATE powers shall be "exercised by" the board of directors(please note that the term "exercised" here is the same term as in the First Amendment "free exercise" clause). When the board acts, it is not an act of the board for itself, it is an act of the corporation. Moreover, as the board acts, its natural person members can indeed do what the Third circuit wrongly said a corporation cannot do: they can worship and pray and otherwise "exercise"(in the corporate and First Amendment senses) rights in their board meeting, and they do so in their "corporate" capacity. And it is the board itself that is the key decisionmaker, not employees or others in corporate governance. The two boards here have made the key decisions. Second, PA section 102 is very interesting. It says that "a"(not "the") purpose of a corporation can be to "purse"(not "maximize") profit, and that profit may be an "incidental" (not sole) purpose of a for-profit corporation. Thus, for-profit corporations in Pennsylvania, by statute, can have multi-purposes, only one of which need be to pursue profits. That further blurs the line between so-called "non-profit" corporations(a misnomer anyway because many make profits they just can't distribute them; since the government concedes on non-profits does the First Amendment really turn on whether dividends can be paid?) and for-profit corporations, the latter of which can be hybrid purpose companies. Here, the two companies pretty clearly seek to make money and also to carry out a board-fashioned CORPORATE religious mission.

Thus, it is via the usual channels of corporate governance that individuals play a key role in corporations acting. It need not be as owners. I honor corporate separateness but think corporate powers are and must be, as here,  "exercised" by board members in pursuit of a well-articulated, and utterly lawful under state law, corporate purpose that has a religious dimension. This all could have been made clearer before tomorrow's arguments.

Business Organizations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Hobby Lobby | Bookmark

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