More Than About Fracking – About Corporate Rights

The March 20 court decision in Pennsylvania, Hallowich v. Range Resources, ordering documents unsealed in a case involving contaminated water from fracking was much more than simply about health or the environment. 

It was about whether corporations possess constitutional rights. 

Common Please Court Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca stated in her ruling that Range Resources Corporation and other natural gas drilling corporations failed to make the case that unsealing records would cause harm to their trade secrets or reputation.

Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, whose water was polluted and who suffered physical harm when gas was released into the air, brought the suit against Range Resources Corporation, the first natural gas driller and one of the most active in the Pennsylvania. Unsealed records were also requested by the media and health groups.

In her decision, O’Dell focused on the core issue — do corporations have privacy “rights,” a main pillar in the argument of the defense. 

O’Dell said under the Pennsylvania Constitution (the case was heard in a county court), they do not. 

She said: “There are no men or women defendants in the instant case; they are various business entities. … These are all legal fictions, existing not by natural birth by operations of state statutes. … Such business entities cannot have been ‘born equally free and independent,’ because they were not born at all.”

This thinking is consistent with the views of Ohio courts over many decades —  before the bizarre notion that corporations possess inalienable constitutional rights became embedded in federal court decisions. 

As Ohio courts affirmed, corporations do not possess rights. Only people can grant corporations powers, privileges and protections. 

Here are a few examples. 

Corporations have such powers, and such only, as the act creating them confers; and are confined to the exercise of those expressly granted, and such incidental powers as are necessary for the purpose of carrying into effect powers specfically conferred. In no state of the Union have these principles been adhered to with more unyielding tenacity than in this.
Elias Straus and Brother v. The Eagle Insurance Company of Cincinnait, 5 OS 60 (1855)

Corporate existence, and the right to exercise the power of eminent domain, can only be derived from legislative enactment.
Atkinson v. Marietta & C.R. Co., 15 OS 21 (1864)

In granting corporate franchises, a state has reserved to itself the right to enact police laws necessary to secure the lives and property of its citizens. These corporations owe their existence and the right to exercise their franchises and privileges to the principle that the state may employ such agencies as it may deem proper to promote the public welfare.
Lake Shore & M.S.R. Co. v. Cincinnati, S. & C.R. Co., 30 OS 604 (1876)

The corporation has received vitality from the state; it continues during its existence to be the creature of the state; must live subservient to its laws, and has such powers and franchises as those laws have bestowed upon it, and none others. As the state was not bound to create it in the first place, it is not bound to maintain it, after having done so, if it violates the laws or public policy of the state, or misuses its franchises to oppress the citizens thereof.
The State ex rel. v. The C.N.O. & T.P. Ry. Co., The State ex rel. v. The C.W. & B. Ry. Co., 47 OS 130 (1890)

The only absolutely essential attribute of a corporation is the capacity to exist and act within the powers granted, as a legal entity, apart from the individual or individuals who constitute its members.Andrews Bros. Co. v. Coke Co., 10 Ohio F. Dec. 306 (1898)

When a corporation asserts that it is clothed with a given power, the burden rests upoin it to show whence such power and rights are derived.

Mannington v. Hocking Valley Ry. Co., 183 F. 133 (1910)

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