Until just over a century ago, the idea that a company could be a criminal was alien to American law. The prevailing assumption was, as Edward Thurlow, an 18th-century Lord Chancellor of England, had put it, that corporations had neither bodies to be punished nor souls to be condemned, and thus were incapable of being “guilty”. But a case against a railway in 1909, for disobeying price controls, established the principle that companies were responsible for their employees’ actions, and America now has several hundred thousand rules that carry some form of criminal penalty. Meanwhile, ever since the 1960s, civil “class-action suits” have taught managers the wisdom of seeking rapid, discreet settlements to avoid long, expensive and embarrassing trials.
The drawbacks of America’s civil tort system are well known. What is new is the way that regulators and prosecutors are in effect conducting closed-door trials. For all the talk of public-spiritedness, the agencies that pocket the fines have become profit centres: Rhode Island’s bureaucrats have been on a spending spree courtesy of a $500m payout by Google, while New York’s governor and attorney-general have squabbled over a $613m settlement from JPMorgan. And their power far exceeds that of trial lawyers. Not only are regulators in effect judge and jury as well as plaintiff in the cases they bring; they can also use the threat of the criminal law.