Corporate Charters

Corporate Charters: Different Ways of Regarding.—There are three ways in which the charter of a corporation may be regarded. In the first place, it may be thought of simply as a license terminable at will by the State, like a liquor-seller’s license or an auctioneer’s license, but affording the incorporators, so long as it remains in force, the privileges and advantages of doing business in the form of a corporation. Nowadays, indeed, when corporate charters are usually issued to all legally qualified applicants by an administrative officer who acts under a general statute, this would probably seem to be the natural way of regarding them were it not for the Dartmouth College decision. But, in 1819 charters were granted directly by the state legislatures in the form of special acts and there were very few profit-taking corporations in the country. The later extension of the benefits of the Dartmouth College decision to corporations organized under general law took place without discussion.

Secondly, a corporate charter may be regarded as a franchise constituting a vested or property interest in the hands of the holders, and therefore as forfeitable only for abuse or in accordance with its own terms. This is the way in which some of the early state courts did regard them at the outset.1997 It is also the way in which Blackstone regarded them in relation to the royal prerogative, although not in relation to the sovereignty of Parliament, and the same point of view found expression in Story’s concurring opinion in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, as it did also in Webster’s argument in that case.1998

The third view is the one formulated by Chief Justice Marshall in his controlling opinion in Dartmouth College v. Woodward.1999 This is that the charter of Dartmouth College, a purely private institution, was the outcome and partial record of a contract between the donors of the college, on the one hand, and the British Crown, on the other, and the contract still continued in force between the State of New Hampshire, as the successor to the Crown and Government of Great Britain, and the trustees, as successors to the donors. The charter, in other words, was not simply a grant—rather it was the documentary record of a still existent agreement between still existent parties.2000 Taking this view, which he developed with great ingenuity and persuasiveness, Marshall was able to appeal to the obligation of contracts clause directly, and without further use of his fiction in Fletcher v. Peck of an executory contract accompanying the grant.

1997 In 1806 Chief Justice Parsons of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, without mentioning the contracts clause, declared that rights legally vested in a corporation cannot be “controlled of destroyed by a subsequent statute, unless a power [for that purpose] be reserved to the legislature in the act of incorporation,” Wales v. Stetson, 2 Mass. 142 (1806). See also Stoughton v. Baker, 4 Mass. 521 (1808) to like effect; cf. Locke v. Dane, 9 Mass. 360 (1812), in which it is said that the purpose of the contracts clause was to provide against paper money and insolvent laws. Together these holdings add up to the conclusion that the reliance of the Massachusetts court was on “fundamental principles,” rather than the contracts clause.

1998 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) at 577–595 (Webster’s argument); id. at 666 (Story’s opinion). See also Story’s opinion for the Court in Terrett v. Taylor, 13 U.S. (9 Cr.) 43 (1815).

1999 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518 (1819).

2000 17 U.S. at 627.

A difficulty still remained, however, in the requirement that a contract, before it can have obligation, must import consideration, that is to say, must be shown not to have been entirely gratuitous on either side. Moreover, the consideration, which induced the Crown to grant a charter to Dartmouth College, was not merely a speculative one. It consisted of the donations of the donors to the important public interest of education. Fortunately or unfortunately, in dealing with this phase of the case, Marshall used more sweeping terms than were needed. “The objects for which a corporation is created,” he wrote, “are universally such as the government wishes to promote. They are deemed beneficial to the country; and this benefit constitutes the consideration, and in most cases, the sole consideration of the grant.” In other words, the simple fact of the charter having been granted imports consideration from the point of view of the State.2001 With this doctrine before it, the Court in Providence Bank v. Billings,2002 and again in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge,2003 admitted without discussion of the point, the applicability of the Dartmouth College decision to purely business concerns.

Reservation of Right to Alter or Repeal Corporate Charters.—It is next in order to consider four principles or doctrines whereby the Court has itself broken down the force of the Dartmouth College decision in great measure in favor of state legislative power. By the logic of the Dartmouth College decision itself, the State may reserve in a corporate charter the right to “amend, alter, and repeal” the same, and such reservation becomes a part of the contract between the State and the incorporators, the obligation of which is accordingly not impaired by the exercise of the right.2004 Later decisions recognize that the State may reserve the right to amend, alter, and repeal by general law, with the result of incorporating the reservation in all charters of subsequent date.2005 There is, however, a difference between a reservation by a statute and one by constitutional provision. While the former may be repealed as to a subsequent charter by the specific terms thereof, the latter may not.2006

2001 17 U.S. at 637; see also Home of the Friendless v. Rouse, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 430, 437 (1869).

2002 29 U.S. (4 Pet.) 514 (1830).

2003 36 U.S. (11 Pet.) 420 (1837).

2004 Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518, 712 (1819) (Justice Story).

2005 Home of the Friendless v. Rouse, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 430, 438 (1869); Pennsylvania College Cases, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 190, 213 (1872); Miller v. New York, 82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 478 (1873); Murray v. Charleston, 96 U.S. 432 (1878); Greenwood v. Freight Co., 105 U.S. 13 (1882); Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. v. Miller, 114 U.S. 176 (1885); Louisville Water Company v. Clark, 143 U.S. 1 (1892).

2006 New Jersey v. Yard, 95 U.S. 104, 111 (1877).

Is the right reserved by a State to “amend” or “alter” a charter without restriction? When it is accompanied, as it generally is, by the right to “repeal,” one would suppose that the answer to this question was self-evident. Nonetheless, there are a number of judicial dicta to the effect that this power is not without limit, that it must be exercised reasonably and in good faith, and that the alterations made must be consistent with the scope and object of the grant.2007 Such utterances amount, apparently, to little more than an anchor to windward, for while some of the state courts have applied tests of this nature to the disallowance of legislation, it does not appear that the Supreme Court of the United States has ever done so.2008

Quite different is it with the distinction pointed out in the cases between the franchises and privileges that a corporation derives from its charter and the rights of property and contract that accrue to it in the course of its existence. Even the outright repeal of the former does not wipe out the latter or cause them to escheat to the State. The primary heirs of the defunct organization are its creditors, but whatever of value remains after their valid claims are met goes to the former shareholders.2009 By the earlier weight of authority, on the other hand, persons who contract with companies whose charters are subject to legislative amendment or repeal do so at their own risk; any “such contracts made between individuals and the corporation do not vary or in any manner change or modify the relation between the State and the corporation in respect to the right of the State to alter, modify, or amend such a charter....”2010 But later holdings becloud this rule.2011

2007 See Holyoke Company v. Lyman, 82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 500, 520 (1873), See also Shields v. Ohio, 95 U.S. 319 (1877); Fair Haven R.R. v. New Haven, 203 U.S. 379 (1906); Berea College v. Kentucky, 211 U.S. 45 (1908). Also Lothrop v. Stedman, 15 Fed. Cas. 922 (No. 8519) (C.C.D. Conn. 1875) where the principles of natural justice are thought to set a limit to the power.

2008 See in this connection the cases cited by Justice Sutherland in his opinion for the Court in Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Jenkins, 297 U.S. 629 (1936).

2009 Curran v. Arkansas, 56 U.S. (15 How.) 304 (1853); Shields v. Ohio, 95 U.S. 319 (1877); Greenwood v. Freight Co., 105 U.S. 13 (1882); Adirondack Ry. v. New York, 176 U.S. 335 (1900); Stearns v. Minnesota, 179 U.S. 223 (1900); Chicago, M. & St. P. R.R. v. Wisconsin, 238 U.S. 491 (1915); Coombes v. Getz, 285 U.S. 434 (1932).

2010 Pennsylvania College Cases, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 190, 218 (1872). See also Calder v. Michigan, 218 U.S. 591 (1910).

2011 Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Ry. v. Smith, 173 U.S. 684, 690 (1899); Coombes v. Getz, 285 U.S. 434 (1932). Both these decisions cite Greenwood v. Freight Co., 105 U.S. 13, 17 (1882), but without apparent justification.

Corporation Subject to the Law and Police Power.—But suppose the State neglects to reserve the right to amend, alter, or repeal. Is it, then, without power to control its corporate creatures? By no means. Private corporations, like other private persons, are always presumed to be subject to the legislative power of the State, from which it follows that immunities conferred by charter are to be treated as exceptions to an otherwise controlling rule. This principle was recognized by Chief Justice Marshall in the case of Providence Bank v. Billings,2012 in which he held that in the absence of express stipulation or reasonable implication to the contrary in its charter, the bank was subject to the taxing power of the State, notwithstanding that the power to tax is the power to destroy.

And of course the same principle is equally applicable to the exercise by the State of its police powers. Thus, in what was perhaps the leading case before the Civil War, the Supreme Court of Vermont held that the legislature of that State had the right, in furtherance of the public safety, to require chartered companies operating railways to fence in their tracks and provide cattle guards. In a matter of this nature, said the court, corporations are on a level with individuals engaged in the same business, unless, from their charter, they can prove the contrary.2013 Since then the rule has been applied many times in justification of state regulation of railroads,2014 and even of the application of a state prohibition law to a company that had been chartered expressly to manufacture beer.2015

2012 29 U.S. (4 Pet.) 514 (1830).

2013 Thorpe v. Rutland & Burlington R.R., 27 Vt. 140 (1854).

2014 Thus a railroad may be required, at its own expense and irrespective of benefits to itself, to eliminate grade crossings in the interest of the public safety, New York & N.E. R.R. v. Bristol, 151 U.S. 556 (1894), to make highway crossings reasonably safe and convenient for public use, Great Northern Ry. v. Minnesota ex rel. Clara City, 246 U.S. 434 (1918), to repair viaducts, Northern Pacific Railway v. Duluth, 208 U.S. 583 (1908), and to fence its right of way, Minneapolis & St. L. Ry. v. Emmons, 149 U.S. 364 (1893). Though a railroad company owns the right of way along a street, the city may require it to lay tracks to conform to the established grade; to fill in tracks at street intersections; and to remove tracks from a busy street intersection, when the attendant disadvantage and expense are small and the safety of the public appreciably enhanced Denver & R.G. R.R. v. Denver, 250 U.S. 241 (1919).

Likewise the State, in the public interest, may require a railroad to reestablish an abandoned station, even though the railroad commission had previously authorized its abandonment on condition that another station be established elsewhere, a condition which had been complied with. Railroad Co. v. Hamersley, 104 U.S. 1 (1881). It may impose upon a railroad liability for fire communicated by its locomotives, even though the State had previously authorized the company to use said type of locomotive power, St. Louis & S. F. Ry. v. Mathews, 165 U.S. 1, 5 (1897), and it may penalize the failure to cut drains through embankments so as to prevent flooding of adjacent lands. Chicago & Alton R.R. v. Tranbarger, 238 U.S. 67 (1915).

2015 Beer Co. v. Massachusetts, 97 U.S. 25 (1878). See also Fertilizing Co. v. Hyde Park, 97 U.S. 659 (1878); Hammond Packing Co. v. Arkansas, 212 U.S. 322, 345 (1909).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014