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A legal personality is what grants a person or organization rights and responsibilities under the law. Since legal systems are built for use by human beings, humans are usually automatically assumed to have a legal personality. In the modern world, the concept is frequently a part of discussions about the rights or legal responsibility of entities such as corporations that cannot be defined by a single person. The concept has also been and continues to be an important part of the discussion on human rights.
The granting of a legal personality has long been associated with allowing a person or entity to have an equal or similar status with a human. When the United States was engaged in slavery, slaves were denied the right to a legal personality. This meant that they could not vote, bring grievances, legally marry, or enjoy any of the rights granted by the US Constitution. Women, Native Americans, and other minority groups were often placed in similar categories. By refusing these groups this designation, the state effectively denied they were people in the same way that white men were considered people.
The other instance in which a legal personality becomes an important issue is when the entity in question is not a human, but a business, partnership, or corporation. Since laws generally only provide for the behavior and rights of humans, to what extent non-individual entities had rights and legal responsibilities became an important question as these types of organizations became more common and more powerful. For instance, since laws usually only lay out rules for how one person sues another person, a corporation might be impervious to lawsuits unless it is granted some form of personality.
Since the Industrial Revolution, when corporations rose to power, the limitations of a legal corporate personality has been an issue of constant debate. While the granting of personhood can help make corporations legally responsible for their actions, it also opens the door to many more intricate questions. For example, if a corporation has a personality separate from its shareholders or owners, some argue that it must also have individual rights, such as the right to vote. If granted the right to vote, however, then shareholders will in effect have the right to vote twice: once as private individuals, and once in the personality of the corporation. As this conflicts with most voting systems, it remains a controversial issue throughout legal circles.
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision that many legal scholars describe as a victory for corporation rights. The decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee expanded the free speech rights of corporations by holding that it is unconstitutional to prohibit legal persons from engaging in election expenditures and electioneering. While critics see this ruling as tantamount to allowing corporate-sponsored candidates in the future, proponents argue that it is unfair to grant legal personality that grants equal responsibilities but not equal rights.
I heard this debate over whether or not corporations can be considered "people", and I didn't grasp the legalities behind it. Corporations aren't giant humanoids who walk around and sell cars or hamburgers for a living. They are "people" in the sense of working as a single entity, much like human beings are billions of cells all working together as one creature.
I could sue the manager of a fast food restaurant if I slip and fall in his restaurant, but the fast food corporation as a separate "person" didn't contribute to my accident. I could bring a discrimination suit against a corporation, because it is a legal personality.