Elizabeth Pollman on the Supreme Court and the complexity of business interests (at Harvard Law Review)
November 11, 2021
In her article "The Supreme Court and the Pro-Business Paradox" in the Harvard Law Review, Elizabeth Pollman (Penn Law) reconsiders the Roberts Court's reputation as pro-business in light of the heterogeneity of interests across firms, as well as the conflicting interests of different parties within firms, both often neglected in both economic and legal commentary and analysis. (For earlier work on this general topic, see Jonathan H. Adler's edited volume Business and the Roberts Court.)
From her introduction:
This Comment makes two primary contributions. It first observes that cases from the recent Term reflect an important way in which the Roberts Court has earned its reputation: over the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Court has often expanded corporate rights while narrowing corporate liability or access to justice against corporate defendants. Part I of this Comment sets forth this argument, using Americans for Prosperity, Ford, and Nestlé as case studies to show how the Court uses ill-fitting conceptions or overbroad generalizations to empower corporations and limit their accountability.
This trend gives rise to a paradox that Part II subsequently explores: the “pro-business” Court is often at odds with internal activity in corporate law and governance. Quite remarkably, as the Roberts Court has expanded corporate rights and narrowed pathways to liability, many shareholders and stakeholders have become vocal participants, putting pressure on corporations to rein in the use of their rights, to mitigate risks generated by their externalities, and to take account of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns. The Court’s expansion of corporate rights not only disserves many corporate participants and spurs them to action but also might fuel challenges to new disclosure rules about corporate political activity or other ESG-related concerns that investors and others seek for effective participation in corporate governance. Further, as the Court has downplayed or ignored corporate decisionmaking structures in its jurisprudence expanding rights and narrowing liability, by contrast, in the world of corporate law and governance, we see that board oversight, monitoring, and compliance functions have grown in importance. State corporate law cases have heightened attention on the board’s role in providing oversight to ensure legal compliance throughout the corporation’s operations and to mitigate litigation and reputational risks that can arise from corporate abuses around the world. Corporate compliance programs and voluntary ESG initiatives have proliferated amid widespread debate about the purpose of the corporation and a broadened role for stakeholders.
Looking at these diverging developments together suggests that, at least in some important circumstances, the Supreme Court’s approach may not capture the reality of modern business corporations, and it might not be what many shareholders and corporate participants actually want. It may instead create new tensions in corporations that are not fully and easily resolved through private ordering and that undermine the conceptual foundation for the existing arrangements in corporate law and governance. It may also ultimately serve only a limited set of business interests — not the great number of workers who are often framed as stakeholders on the other side of “pro-business” jurisprudence, nor the majority of public corporation shareholders, who are increasingly diversified through institutions that rely on external regulation to constrain corporations and minimize systematic risk. And so, in sum, corporations might bear little resemblance to the Court’s characterizations, and the business world, on the whole, might often be better off without “pro-business” jurisprudence that empowers corporations and erodes their external constraints.
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