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Brooklyn Law icon professor Joe Crea taught us corporations aren’t people — was he right?

Chuck Otey's Pro Bono Barrister

May 4, 2015 By Charles F. Otey, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Joe Crea. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Law School

Fifty Years Later — at 100 — He and Other Grads Will Be Saluted June 11 on Ellis Island

It’s been a while since Brooklyn Law School (BLS) Professor Joe Crea explained to us — in an un-air-conditioned classroom in a squat stone-faced building on Pearl Street — that a corporation is not a person. It was — and I recall these quotes — an “artificial entity … created by the state … to shield stockholders from personal liability.”

He pounded that message home so often and effectively that it remains in our legal minds, virtually every word intact, 50 years later. This test-taker wrote of the artificiality and nonhumanity of corporations frequently — and correctly — on the bar exam in the summer of 1967 in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Commodore in Manhattan.

It was as though Joe Crea was seated at the next desk.

Professor Crea, often  a bit disheveled, perhaps missing a collar stay or two, looked more like a grandfather than a law school professor, even in those halcyon days. In addition to his academic assignments, he also served as the advisor of the Evarts Chapter of Phi Delta Phi. As it happened, our chapter rooms were located next to his in an ante-room suite midway up the stairs to the second floor. 

His inspections were few and informal. He would knock on the door, stick his head in and say, “How ya’ doin’?”

One wonders today how he regards stunning, strained court decisions and insensitive, elitist, Mitt Romney-like proclamations elevating corporations to personhood. The very idea of a corporation being transformed into a person, for legal purposes, would have been — and remains, to most — anathema. Almost comical.

With corporations and other “people” now enabled and, in fact, encouraged to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to politics, it’s a radically different legal/political landscape. That is why some court watchers breathed a sigh of relief last week when the Supreme Court ruled that a judicial candidate couldn’t directly raise funds for her own campaign.

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Would-be jurist Lanell Williams-Yulee is not a corporation, but her attempt to solicit money by signing a letter urging voters to donate to her judicial campaign for a county court seat in Florida was not permissible, the Roberts court held. 

Objectively, based on some very creative case precedent, it would seem that Williams-Yulee’s behavior constituted free speech. To hold otherwise would deny Williams-Yulee — and millionaires across the country and as far away as Russia — from controlling elections and government policy as freely as they now do. This, at least, was her argument, which seemed soundly based in earlier Supreme Court decisions.

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Hoping to Discuss Corporations, Personhood at June 11 BLS Salute

Surprisingly, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that “judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot.”

Recognizing the importance of judicial impartiality, Justice Roberts quoted Alexander Hamilton, who said that judges have “no influence over either the sword or the purse.”

Hopefully, we will have an opportunity to discuss the current life status of corporations with Professor Crea, who just turned 100, on June 11 when he will be a featured honoree at the Salute to Brooklyn Law School Icons on historic Ellis Island.

We must add that Professor Crea’s last class taught, according to Dean Nick Allard, was commercial paper and banking back in 2014. The good dean had nothing but praise for the professor emeritus when he talked with Eagle Legal Editor Charisma L. Troiano. Here’s part of what he said: “Professor Joe Crea is one of a kind. He is a fabulous teacher, cherished colleague and world-class human being. His intellect, zest for life, courage and selflessness make him a giant of a man.”

The thousands of us who learned about corporations, taxation, commercial paper and myriad other legal subjects from Professor Crea over the years — since 1947, actually — would, of course, echo Dean Allard’s observations.

There will be other distinguished alumni and alumna among the honorees on June 11, including BLS graduates Hon. David Dinkins ’56, Professor Richard Farrell ’64 and Professor Linda B. Feldman ’83.

The gala will be emceed by CNBC Anchor Brian Sullivan ’09 and we are certain to be favored with some choice words from Dean Allard and other noted speakers. But, in truth, it will be nice to have a chance to discuss corporations and their purported corporeality with Professor Crea.

Reservations for June 11 are highly recommended. After all, guests will have to get there by boats departing at 6:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. from Battery Park Pier. To RSVP online, go to www.brooklaw.edu/iconsgala-rsvp. Longtime acquaintances and former students may prefer to make arrangements by telephone by calling the Office of External Affairs at 718-780-7966.

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On 25th Anniversary, Brooklyn VLP Leaves BBA on Remsen St. for its Own Offices at 44 Court St. 

There are many lawyers and organizations that deserve credit for the impressive success of the Brooklyn Volunteers Lawyers Project (VLP). Chief among them, of course, are James P. and Linda Slattery, Terri and Nick Letica and the Rubin-Henry Foundations.

It’s important to note that this singular project — which has now benefitted thousands of people who could not afford an attorney — is also a credit to those in the Brooklyn Bar Association (BBA) who have supported the idea of a volunteer lawyers group from its inception.

Names of various VLP proponents — Hon. Barry Kamins, Larry DiGiovanna, Steve Cohn, Beth, Andrea and John Bonina Jr. — come quickly to mind. There are many, many more, notably BBA Executive Director Avery Okin.

Some may believe that this public service agenda was a gift, or a grant, from a government or some wealthy institution. Actually, it was the brainchild of and noble cause adopted by hundreds of lawyers in the BBA who wouldn’t sit idly by when so many here were deprived of their “day in court.”

For its first quarter-century, the VLP operated out of a 450-square-foot office at BBA headquarters, 123 Remsen St.

“After years of steady growth, we were bursting at the seams and simply needed larger quarters,” a spokesman said. “We will be moving to a 900-square-foot office at 44 Court St. with more space for clients, staff and volunteers.”

Cash contributions to the VLP’s Raise the Rent program are tax-deductible. Go to BrooklynVLP.org for details.

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Justice Ash Will Address Next Columbian Meeting May 5

The Kings County Columbian Lawyers Association will host its regular CLE-accredited session on May 5 at the Rex Manor, 1100 60th St.

The featured speaker, following the start of dinner at 6 p.m., will be Kings County Supreme Court Justice Sylvia Ash, according to administrator Lucy DiSalvo. 

Leading the Columbians this year is President Bartholomew Russo, aided by a talented team composed of First Vice President Rose Ann C. Branda, Second Vice President Dean Delianites, Third Vice President Linda Locascio, Treasurer Mark Longo, Corresponding Secretary Joseph Rosato and Recording Secretary Hon. Frank R. Seddio.

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Justice D’Emic Addresses Bay Ridge Lawyers

Kings County Justice Matthew D’Emic, administrative justice for criminal matters in the Second Judicial District, recently addressed the Bay Ridge Lawyers Association on the topic of “Sentencing and Punishment.” The CLE-accredited gathering was held at Hunter’s Steak & Ale House in Bay Ridge. Justice D’Emic is shown with BRLA President Lisa Becker.

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