One of the now-standard storylines about the global financial crisis is that despite all the chaos very few corporate executives were prosecuted and even fewer went to jail. However, rather than interpreting these circumstances to suggest that there was insufficient evidence to convict corporate executives beyond a reasonable doubt, some observers have decided that the problem was that there is something wrong with our criminal justice system.

One observer who has made a hobby horse out of these issues is the U.S. Senator and Presidential Candidate, Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren has now introduced new legislation that would lower the standard of criminal liability for corporate executive. Among other things, the new legislation would make corporate executives criminally liable for mere negligence in certain circumstances, even in the absence of the degree of intent that has for centuries been viewed in our legal system as the indispensable basis for a criminal conviction. As discussed below, this legislation is not only a bad idea in terms of our country’s corporate competitiveness, it also threatens one of our legal system’s bedrock principles.
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supreme courtThe U.S. Supreme Court may soon get a chance to consider and review the “Responsible Corporate Officer” Doctrine (also sometimes referred to as the “Park doctrine,” in reference to the 1975 case in which the Court first described the doctrine) in a case in which corporate executives challenge their individual criminal imprisonment sentences for alleged corporate misconduct in which they were not involved and of which they had no knowledge. As discussed here, the executives’ sentences were affirmed by the Eighth Circuit, and the executives have now filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, in which they seek to have the Court take up the question of whether the imposition of a sentence of imprisonment for a supervisory liability offense violates constitutional due process requirements. As a May 3, 2017 memo from the Cadwalader law firm put it, the case may be the “most important Park doctrine case in over forty years.”
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eighth circuitOne of the bedrock principles of our legal system is that criminal liability attaches only to those who act with intent or knowledge – that is, as the legal scholars say, with mens rea (or a guilty mind). The “responsible corporate officer doctrine” sits uneasily with these notions, imposing liability as it does on corporate officers not for their involvement in or even awareness of wrongdoing, but simply for their status as persons responsible for the company involved. A recent decision from the Eighth Circuit, in which each judge on the three-judge panel that heard the case wrote a separate opinion, underscores the tensions the responsible corporate officer doctrine presents within our system of justice, and potentially sets the stage for further consideration of these issues. The Eighth Circuit’s July 6, 2016 opinion in U.S. v. DeCoster can be found here.
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