In both cases, the constitutional claimants included individuals as well as a mix of business associations. In neither case did the justices explicitly address whether corporate businesses should have the same constitutional protections as individuals. Yet there is no question that the biggest beneficiaries of these decisions will be corporations. Del Monte Corporation will not have to give up a portion of its raisin crop; Marriott and Hilton hotels can refuse to show their guest books to police.
Although corporations won big, the justices focused on the nature of the rights in question, not the identity or status of those who claim their protection. The raisin growers had to be compensated because, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a majority that included Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, the ban on government taking of private property is as old as the Magna Carta. In the hotel case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for a majority that included the Court’s liberal wing and Justice Anthony Kennedy, declared that searches conducted without judicial process are “per se unreasonable.”
Opponents of corporate rights too simplistically champion the notion that “corporations are not people.” Corporations deserve some Constitutional protections, both in order to keep government in check and because the ultimate beneficiaries are citizens. A corporate right to be free from government takings, for example, makes sense both as a matter of constitutional law and of economics. Government overreach is problematic whether the raisin grower is a family farm or a business corporation. And corporations left exposed to government expropriation would find investors reluctant to take that risk, undermining the basic social purpose of the corporation, to make money. (So Roberts in the raisin case got the takings question correct for corporations, even though he never explicitly considered it.)
Some rights, though, are more appropriate for people than for corporations, particularly when the nature of the right does not “fit” with the corporate form, or the corporate form magnifies the nature of the right beyond what humans would have. Religious rights, for example, should be different for corporations because only humans have consciences. Rights to spend money in elections should be different for corporations because the benefits they receive from the government give them an improper advantage in influencing government policy.
Do corporations warrant privacy rights? Corporations should be able to expect that government agents will not seize their property or search their premises without good reason. But the privacy interests of humans are likely to be stronger than those of corporations, and the Court has understood that in the past. In 2011, the Court unanimously rejected AT&T’s claim that its finances be excluded from Freedom of Information Act requests under that statute’s exception for “personal privacy.” Roberts wrote that such right “does not extend to corporations. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”