Comments on the Riggs Case as used in the 'Historians and Legal Scholars' Amicus Brief in the Hobby Lobby Obamacare Mandate Case
14 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2014
Date Written: February 3, 2014
The “Historians and Legal Scholars” amicus brief in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case tries to make the case that historically courts treated ordinary corporations as having rights different from non-corporate persons and nonprofit corporations. This paper looks at one of the main cases it cites, Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. v. Riggs, 203 U.S. 243 (1906). In that case the Court denied Lochner-style substantive due process protection to a life insurance corporation that claimed state law could not void fine print contract clauses that would allow it to escape paying claims if its customer had made even a non-material error in filling out its forms. The statute applied to all insurance, however, not just to corporations. Moreover, Lochner is dead; nobody, whether natural person or corporation gets that kind of 14th Amendment protection nowadays, so the case’s relevance is dubious even if it did hinge on the plaintiff’s status as a corporation. In any case, corporations at that time had rights very different from corporations today because the doctrine of ultra vires was alive and well, so a corporation’s behavior was tightly controlled by the wording of its corporate charter. In applying historical cases to current jurisprudence, one must look at the historical context and be wary of simply extracting quotes from judicial opinions.
Keywords: corporations, Riggs, substantive due process, corporate history, ultra vires
JEL Classification: K22, L22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation