Mendes Hershman Winner Abstract: “Corporate Purpose and the Separation of Powers”

2 Min Read By: Benjamin Seymour

The Mendes Hershman Student Writing Contest is a highly regarded legal writing competition that encourages and rewards law students for their outstanding writing on business law topics. Papers are judged on research and analysis, choice of topic, writing style, originality, and contribution to the literature available on the topic. The distinguished former Business Law Section Chair Mendes Hershman (1974–1975) lends his name to this legacy. See the abstract of this year’s second-place winner, Benjamin Seymour of Yale Law School, Class of 2021, below. The full article (available on SSRN) is forthcoming in Volume 36 of the BYU Journal of Public Law.

Despite its intense focus on inter-jurisdictional competition, corporate law scholarship has thus far overlooked the influence of inter-branch competition on business organizations. This Article shows how inter-branch struggles for control over corporations catalyzed the advent of modern corporate law and helped propel Delaware to its dominant position in the market for corporate charters.

For centuries, the legislature, judiciary, and executive vied for the decisive role in dictating the means and ends of corporations. Through the nineteenth century, competition among the branches produced a dysfunctional and volatile relationship between government and private enterprise, with each branch successively assuming a leading role in corporate oversight, only to falter under the weight of its unique structural limitations. The resulting instability ultimately proved so intolerable as to prompt the creation of an entirely new paradigm of liberalized corporate codes at the dawn of the twentieth century. Delaware’s innovation of and rigorous adherence to corporate law’s newfound separation of powers gave it a crucial, yet previously unappreciated, edge in the competition for corporate charters. Moreover, modern corporate law’s system of checks and balances curbed longstanding abuses and ushered in an equilibrium among the branches that has served as a foundation for economic growth in the United States since.

Beyond illuminating a novel factor in Delaware’s ascendancy, corporate law’s separation of powers poses unappreciated problems and provides preliminary solutions for the ongoing debate over corporate purpose. A growing chorus of progressive academics and policy-makers has called on the government to impose and enforce corporations’ social obligations. This Article offers new grounds for skepticism towards these proposed reforms, because they would jeopardize corporate law’s hard-fought equilibrium among the branches by reviving the unilateralism and dysfunction that once plagued the United States’ corporate law regime. Accordingly, this Article contends that vesting the government with a proactive role in imposing and enforcing corporate purpose, whether at the state or federal level, is ill advised. Yet this Article also providers reform-minded progressives with a concrete framework for structuring an expanded power to enforce corporate purpose with minimal risk to corporate law’s separation of powers.

By: Benjamin Seymour

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