Corporate personhood is the most widely known legal fiction and the most likely to trigger strong opinions. In jury selections that we’ve conducted, most potential jurors appear willing to treat a corporation the same as individuals. However, there are often a few jurors who vehemently protest the notion that corporations should be treated the same as an individual person.
In an effort to understand the prevalence of these disparate opinions of corporate personhood, Bonora Rountree conducted an online survey of 300 jury-eligible California residents. We look at the issue of corporate personhood through the lens of public opinion. Our goal is to develop insights for jury selection strategies in cases where a corporation is a party. This research is part of our mission to inform lawyers and judges about the existence of biases that might influence jurors’ ability to be fair and impartial while also encouraging voir dire conditions that allow for a thorough exploration of those biases.
Corporations as Persons Before the Law
Our survey asked participants for their reactions to the following jury instruction:
The fact that a defendant is a corporation should not affect your verdict. Under the law, a corporation is considered a person and all persons are equal before the law. Corporations are entitled to the same fair and conscientious consideration by you as any other person.
As the chart above shows, 91% replied that it would be “very” or “somewhat” easy to understand that jury instruction. It’s not surprising that an overwhelming percentage of the people we surveyed understand this instruction. Our experience is that a significant number of people come to jury service with opinions about treating corporations and individuals the same.
It’s worth noting that 21% “strongly” or “somewhat” disagree with that same jury instruction.
Equal Treatment for Corporations and Individuals
Phrasing a question differently can often yield different responses. Therefore, we asked the question differently so that we could compare which version is more likely to elicit disagreement, potentially providing the basis for a cause challenge.
The alternative question was phrased as follows:
If you were a juror in a lawsuit between an individual and a corporation, is there any reason why you could not follow the court’s instruction to treat the individual and the corporation equally?
The chart above demonstrates that only 66% of the 300 survey respondents say that they would have “no problem” following the instruction to treat the individual and corporation equally. That means 34% of the sample might have a problem and could possibly require a defense attorney to challenge these jurors for cause. Interestingly, when this question was asked on a jury questionnaire on a case in Alameda County, the frequency was nearly identical.
When the question was asked in an agree/disagree format on our survey, only 21% of participants expressed disagreement (see graph below). However, when the question was asked in a yes/no/not sure format, 34% of our participants expressed hesitation. For corporate defendants who are concerned about jurors’ ability to treat a corporation and an individual equally, responses to the yes/no/not sure format are more likely to result in a cause challenge or require further exploration about jurors’ potential biases.