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The Plain Meaning Rule dictates that statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statute.

If a law is written and uses only the word "person" (or "persons"), and the law lacks a definition for the word "person", and the law does not use the words "natural persons", then does the law include a corporation as a person under the Plain Meaning Rule?

Thanks in advance.


If needed, here is some example text. In the example text, it is not clear to me whether corporations are included or excluded because (1) "person" is not defined; and (2) the words "natural persons" was not used.

The best I can tell, the conduct would include corporations because the courts have interpreted persons to include corporations via hundreds of bastardizations of the 14th amendment (like the Citizens United v. FEC case).

(a) A person may not follow another in or about a public place or maliciously engage in a course of conduct that alarms or seriously annoys the other:

(1) with the intent to harass, alarm, or annoy the other;

(2) after receiving a reasonable warning or request to stop by or on behalf of the other; and

(3) without a legal purpose.

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    From the context I would infer that whatever a person is it needs to be able to follow someone around. I don't think a corporation can do that. Feb 19 at 20:26
  • @JohhnyDoe what law is your example text taken from?
    – Rock Ape
    Feb 19 at 20:39
  • Context always matters. In the statute quoted above it would probably mean "natural person" but it will include entities when context requires. Words don't have a single meaning in U.S. law. A word can mean one thing in one context and a different thing in another context, even if the absence of explicit definitions.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 20 at 0:17
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So, the plain meaning rule is a general rule, and, as with most general legal rules, there are exceptions. One such exception is that if a statute uses a word that has a commonly understood legal meaning, even if that differs from the ordinary meaning, then that legal meaning applies. "Persons" is commonly understood in legalese to include corporations (just take my word for it), so when used in a statute it's going to include corporations and other entities. A similar example is that the word "he," when used in a statute, is not construed to only include males within its ambit.

Note that there can be exceptions to this rule too.

Since your example is a criminal statute, note that, under certain circumstances, criminal liability can be imputed to a corporation or other entity.

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The underlying issue is discussed in Eskridge's book Interpreting law, the main theme of which is that these rules exist in a hierarchy. Hierarchy means that in case of apparent conflict, one thing has precedence over the other, which gives the impression of there being exceptions. The ordinary meaning of "person" does not include "corporation". But one of the highest principles of legal interpretation is stare decisis. Legal precedents are be encapsulated as simple principles, and often that is done by stipulating a specific meaning of a term, in a particular legal context. Corporate personhood is a well-established but unfortunate legal construction from previous centuries, starting with Bank of the US v. Devereaux, where the interests of diverse persons from different states, and their joined interest as a corporation, was at issue (thus diversity jurisdiction is at stake). The court reasoned (also following prior reasoning in the English courts) that corporations are not wildly different from bunch of individuals, and this led to the idea of the corporate "legal person". The rights of individuals of diverse jurisdictions to access federal courts is a fundamental constitutional right, and various rulings have upheld this right. Respect for that precedent thus overrides any ordinary meaning considerations.

A corporation has no 4th and 5th amendment rights, and it is also beyond question that corporations cannot vote. The "corporate person" concept is itself a relatively limited exception to the ordinary meaning rule, but especially in case a fundamental constitutional right is at stake, the joint interest of multiple persons, corporations, may be protected by appeal to the legal precedent of "legal person".

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