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Context of 'January 27-29, 2010: Obama Criticizes ‘Citizens United’ Ruling in State of the Union Address, Supreme Court Justice Mouths ‘Not True’ in Retort'

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President Bush, stung by the opposition from both left and right that derailed his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court (see October 3-27, 2005), nominates appeals court judge Samuel Alito to the Court to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor. [Dean, 2007, pp. 155-157]
Staunch Advocate of Expanding Presidential Power - Alito has impeccable credentials, especially in contrast to the widely derided Miers. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, a long-time member of the conservative Federalist Society, and has years of decisions behind him as an appellate court judge. He is a product of the Reagan-era Justice Department. Bush calls him “one of the most accomplished and respected judges in America.” He is a powerful anti-abortion advocate, and a staunch supporter of granting ever more power to the executive branch, especially at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. During his time in the Reagan Justice Department, he worked on a project to “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” In 2000 he called the “unitary executive theory” (see April 30, 1986) the “gospel according to the OLC,” the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where he worked for four years, and said he was firmly committed to advancing that theory. [Savage, 2007, pp. 267-271]
Bland Facade at Hearings - Alito receives a unanimous “well qualified” assessment from the American Bar Association, and the Bush administration expects that his nomination will sail through the Senate confirmation hearings as quickly and painlessly as did Bush’s previous choice for the Court, John Roberts (see September 29, 2005). The hearings are more contentious than Bush would like, and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will say in 2007 that Alito’s performance before the Judiciary Committee “only served to confirm that the entire process has become little more than a great charade.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), one of the longest-serving members of the committee, observes that the Bush administration believes—correctly—that it can nominate radical right-wing extremists to the Court virtually at will, “as long as their views were not well known,” and adds, “[T]he current White House [has] turned the effort to hide nominees’ views into an art form.” Like Roberts, Alito presents a bland, non-confrontational facade to the committee (see January 9-13, 2006), refusing to take a personal stance on any issue and giving the impression that, as Kennedy will say after Alito and Roberts begin their service on the Court, he would be “as neutral as a baseball umpire.… The men who promised to be neutral umpires look more and more like loyal members of the president’s team.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 155-157]
Party-Line Confirmation - After an attempt by Senators Kennedy and John Kerry (D-MA) to filibuster Alito’s confirmation fails, the Senate confirms Alito’s ascension to the Court by a near-party line 58-42 vote, the closest such vote since Clarence Thomas’s (see October 13, 1991). Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) condemns what he calls the “very bitter partisanship” over Alito’s nomination, and accuses Democrats of playing politics: “When you have a man who has the decency, the legal ability and the capacities that Judge Alito has treated this way, I think it’s despicable.” Alito, whose hardline conservative beliefs are sufficiently masked during the hearings, replaces the far more moderate O’Connor, who before her retirement made up the “moderate center” of the Court with Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter. Now Alito joins Thomas, Roberts, and Antonin Scalia to form a hard-right conservative bloc on the Court which, when joined by center-right conservative Kennedy, forms a nearly unshakable conservative majority. [CNN, 2/1/2006]
Overturning Roe? - Many believe that Alito gives the Court the fifth vote it needs to finally overturn the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade (see January 22, 1973), a longtime goal of social conservatives that would go far to make abortions illegal in the US. [Slate, 10/31/2005]

Entity Tags: Orrin Hatch, Sandra Day O’Connor, Samuel Alito, John Dean, US Supreme Court, John G. Roberts, Jr, John Kerry, George W. Bush, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Harriet E. Miers, Antonin Scalia

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy.Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010] In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; OMB Watch, 1/27/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010; National Public Radio, 2012]
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010]
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010; Associated Press, 1/21/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010]
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Citizens United, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, New York Times, Nick Nyhart, Evan Tracey, David Bossie, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, John Paul Stevens, Malcolm Stewart, John G. Roberts, Jr, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito listens to President Obama’s State of the Union address.Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito listens to President Obama’s State of the Union address. [Source: Renovo Media]President Obama sharply criticizes the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, giving corporations and unions the right to give unlimited and anonymous donations to organizations supporting or opposing political candidates (see January 21, 2010), during the annual State of the Union address. Obama gives the address to a joint session of Congress, with three Supreme Court members in attendance. “With all due deference to the separation of powers,” Obama says, “last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.” Democrats in the chamber applaud Obama’s remarks, while Republicans do not. In his response, Justice Samuel Alito, one of the five conservatives on the Court who joined in the majority decision, shakes his head and mouths, “Not true, not true” (some lip readers will later claim that Alito says, “That’s not true”). It is highly unusual for a president to so directly criticize a Supreme Court ruling, especially in a State of the Union address. The next day, Vice President Joe Biden defends Obama’s remarks in an appearance on Good Morning America. Biden says: “The president didn’t question the integrity of the court. He questioned the judgment of it. I think [the ruling] was dead wrong and we have to correct it.” Supreme Court expert Lucas A. Powe says, “I can’t ever recall a president taking a swipe at the Supreme Court like that.” Experts say that the closest precedent they can find is President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 criticism of the Court in his address to Congress. Yale law professor Jack Balkin says, “The important thing to me is that the president thinks the Citizens United decision is important enough that he would include it.” Reactions are split along ideological lines. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) calls Obama “rude” to criticize the Court’s verdict. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) calls Alito’s reaction “inappropriate.” Legal expert Barbara A. Perry of Sweet Briar College says both Obama and Alito were in the wrong, calling the interaction “an unfortunate display for both branches.” White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton says: “One of the great things about our democracy is that powerful members of the government at high levels can disagree in public and in private. This is one of those cases.” Alito refuses to comment. Alito and Obama have a contentious history. As a senator, Obama was one of the most outspoken voices against Alito’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006), saying then of Alito, “[W]hen you look at his record—when it comes to his understanding of the Constitution, I have found that in almost every case, he consistently sides on behalf of the powerful against the powerless; on behalf of a strong government or corporation against upholding American’s individual rights.” For his part, Alito snubbed the formal visit paid by Obama and Biden to the Court. [New York Daily News, 1/28/2010; Washington Post, 1/28/2010] Months later, Obama’s warning will be proven to be correct, as a media investigation will show the US Chamber of Commerce using foreign monies to fund attack ads and other political activities under the cloak of the Citizens United decision (see October 2010).

Entity Tags: Jack Balkin, Barbara A. Perry, Barack Obama, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, US Congress, US Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, Orrin Hatch, Lucas A. (“Scot”) Powe, Joseph Biden, US Chamber of Commerce, Russell D. Feingold, Bill Burton

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In an unsigned editorial, the Wall Street Journal lambasts President Obama for his recent comments that warned the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) could open the door for foreign corporations to contribute money for use in American elections (see January 27-29, 2010). “[C]ould a graduate of Harvard Law School at least get his facts right?” the editorial asks. The Journal accuses Obama of reciting a number of falsehoods in his comments on the decision, and accuses him of using the term “foreign” in “a conscious attempt to inflame public and Congressional opinion against the Court. Coming from a president who fancies himself a citizen of the world, and who has gone so far as [to] foreswear American exceptionalism, this leap into talk-show nativism is certainly illuminating. What will they think of that one in the cafes of Berlin?” [Wall Street Journal, 1/29/2010] The day before the editorial, the liberal media watchdog organization Media Matters noted that Obama’s concerns were echoed by the four dissenting Supreme Court Justices in the decision, as well as by a number of legal experts (see January 27-28, 2010).

Entity Tags: Wall Street Journal, Media Matters, Barack Obama

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In a highly unusual action for a sitting Supreme Court Justice, Justice Clarence Thomas strongly defends the Court’s recent Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited corporate and union funding of campaign activities (see January 21, 2010). He makes his remarks at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Florida. Thomas was part of the 5-4 majority that ruled on the case. He also says that he refused to attend the recent State of the Union address by President Obama, where fellow Justice Samuel Alito apparently contradicted Obama’s critical characterization of the ruling (see January 27-29, 2010), because under Obama, these addresses have become “partisan,” stating: “I don’t go because it has become so partisan and it’s very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there… there’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV—the catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments (see September 9, 2009). One of the consequences is now the Court becomes part of the conversation, if you want to call it that, in the speeches. It’s just an example of why I don’t go.” Thomas mocks media criticisms of the ruling, saying: “I found it fascinating that the people who were editorializing against it were The New York Times Company and The Washington Post Company. These are corporations.” It is a mistake, Thomas says, to consider regulation of corporations’ campaign activities as “some sort of beatific action,” and he cites the 1907 Tillman Act, the first federal legislation banning corporate contributions to federal candidates (see 1907), as being sparked by racism, saying: “Go back and read why [Senator Benjamin] Tillman introduced that legislation. Tillman was from South Carolina, and as I hear the story he was concerned that the corporations, Republican corporations, were favorable toward blacks and he felt that there was a need to regulate them.” Thomas says the underpinning of the decision was the First Amendment’s protection of speech regardless of how people choose to assemble to participate in the political process. “If 10 of you got together and decided to speak, just as a group, you’d say you have First Amendment rights to speak and the First Amendment right of association,” he says. “If you all then formed a partnership to speak, you’d say we still have that First Amendment right to speak and of association. But what if you put yourself in a corporate form?” The answer would be the same, Thomas says. [New York Times, 2/3/2010]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, Tillman Act, US Supreme Court, Washington Post, Samuel Alito

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Chief Justice John Roberts tells a group of law students that President Obama and Congressional Democrats turned the recent State of the Union address into a “pep rally” targeting Court justices, and questions the need for justices to attend the event. During the speech, Obama criticized the Citizens United decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising (see January 21, 2010), and Justice Samuel Alito drew media attention by mouthing the words “Not true” in response to Obama’s remarks (see January 27-29, 2010). Roberts is referring to the fact that many Congressional Democrats cheered the president’s remarks. He calls the event “very troubling,” and says, “To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we are there.” Six of the Court’s nine justices, including Alito and Roberts, were in attendance. Roberts says he is less concerned about the criticism of the Court than the expectation that the justices must sit silently: “Anybody can criticize the Supreme Court.… I have no problem with that. The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the Court—according to the requirements of protocol—has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling. It does cause me to think… why are we there?” Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas did not attend, complaining that the address would be a “partisan” event (see February 2, 2010), and Justice John Paul Stevens, who strongly dissented from the Citizens United decision, did not attend due to age and health issues. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responds strongly to Roberts’s remarks, saying, “What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections, drowning out the voices of average Americans.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/10/2010] Three weeks after Roberts makes his observations, conservative talk show host David Limbaugh will call Obama’s criticisms a “public assault” on the justices. [David Limbaugh, 4/5/2012]

Entity Tags: John Paul Stevens, Barack Obama, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John G. Roberts, Jr, Samuel Alito, David Limbaugh, Robert Gibbs, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

US-Bahrain Business Council logo.US-Bahrain Business Council logo. [Source: US-Bahrain Business Council]The US Chamber of Commerce (USCC), in a methodology made legal by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010), uses foreign-generated funds to disseminate “attack ads” against Democrats running for office in the November midterm elections. The USCC has targeted, among others, Jack Conway (D-KY), Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Governor Jerry Brown (G-CA), and Representatives Joe Sestak (D-PA) and Tom Perriello (D-VA). The USCC, a private trade association organized as a 501(c)(6) that can raise and spend unlimited funds without disclosing any of its donors, has promised to spend $75 million to prevent Democrats from winning in the upcoming elections. The USCC has, as of September 15, aired over 8,000 television ads supporting Republican candidates and attacking Democrats, according to information from the Wesleyan Media Project. The USCC has far outspent any other public or private group, including political parties. The funds for the USCC’s efforts come from its general account, which solicits foreign funding. Legal experts say that the USCC is likely skirting campaign finance law that prohibits monies from foreign corporations being spent in American elections. The USCC has been very active in recent years in raising funds from overseas sources, with such funds either going directly to the USCC or being funneled to the USCC through its foreign chapters, known as Business Councils or “AmChams.” Some of the largest donations come from the oil-rich country of Bahrain, generated by the USCC’s internal fundraising department in that nation called the “US-Bahrain Business Council” (USBBC). The USBBC is an office of the USCC and not a separate entity. The USBBC raises well over $100,000 a year from foreign businesses, funds shuttled directly to the USCC. A similar operation exists in India through the auspices of the USCC’s US-India Business Council (USIBC). The USIBC raises well over $200,000 a year for the USCC. Other such organizations exist in Egypt, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and other countries, with those nations’ laws making it difficult or impossible for the public to learn how much money is being raised and by which foreign entities. Multinational firms such as BP, Shell Oil, and Siemens are also active members of the USCC, and contribute heavily to the organization. If those firms’ monies are going to fund political activities, the Citizens United decision makes it legal to keep that fact, and the amount of money being used to fund those political activities, entirely secret. It is known that the health insurer Aetna secretly donated $20 million to the USCC to try to defeat the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last year, and News Corporation, the parent of Fox News, donated $1 million to the USCC to use in political activities (see September 30, 2010). The USCC is a strong opponent of Democrats’ efforts to persuade American businesses to hire locally rather than outsourcing jobs to countries such as China and India, and has fought Democrats who oppose free trade deals that would significantly benefit foreign entities. The USCC claims that it “has a system in place” to prevent foreign funding for its “political activities,” but refuses to give any details. [Think Progress, 10/5/2010]

Entity Tags: Joe Sestak, British Petroleum, Barbara Boxer, Aetna, Jack Conway, US-India Business Council, Wesleyan Media Project, US Chamber of Commerce, News Corporation, Royal Dutch/Shell, US-Bahrain Business Council, Siemens, Thomas Perriello, Edmund Gerald (“Jerry”) Brown, Jr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The press learns that the Obama administration is considering having President Obama (see January 27-29, 2010) issue an executive order that would force federal contractors to disclose donations over $5,000 to political organizations. Such firms seeking government contracts would be required to disclose contributions to groups that air political ads either attacking or supporting candidates. Both Republicans and Democrats say that if issued, the order would have an immediate effect. Groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce (USCOC), a large Republican donor that has made large undisclosed donations to Republican-supporting candidates and organizations (see January 21-22, 2010 and October 2010), attacks the White House over the considered executive order, saying it proves Obama is using his executive power to punish political adversaries and reward supporters. USCOC spokesperson Blair Latoff calls the proposed order “an affront to the separation of powers [and] to free speech” (see January 21, 2010) that would create a litmus test for companies wanting to work with the federal government. The order, Latoff adds, could mean “prospective contractors that fund political causes unpopular with the government or the current administration may find that they don’t get a contract award due to political discrimination.” Republican senators will raise the same concerns in a letter sent to the White House the next day. Lawyer Jan Baran, who has worked for both the USCOC and Republican interests, acknowledges that the order could curtail fundraising attempts for the 2012 elections. White House officials and Congressional Democrats say the order would prevent the 2012 elections from being taken over by wealthy anonymous donors on both sides of the political aisle. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a nonprofit group that favors stricter campaign finance rules, says, “The fact that Congressional Republicans may oppose disclosure does not mean that efforts to obtain it are, by definition, partisan.” [United Press International, 4/20/2011; Los Angeles Times, 4/21/2011; New York Times, 4/27/2011] A week later, Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the USCOC, will assail Obama and the White House over the proposed executive order, telling a reporter that the organization “is not going to tolerate” what it considers a “backdoor attempt” by the White House to silence private-sector opponents by disclosing their political spending. Josten will even indirectly compare Obama to Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi; citing the Obama administration’s efforts to hasten the deposing of al-Qadhafi, Josten will say of the order: “We will fight it through all available means. To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.” White House spokesman Jay Carney will say in response to Josten’s attack, “What the president is committed to is transparency, and he certainly thinks that the American taxpayer should know where his or her money is going.” Josten is joined by the Business Roundtable, a powerful business association made up of a number of chief executives, which will call the proposed order “yet another example of regulatory over-reach,” and will claim the order would increase paperwork and drive up costs for businesses. [Think Progress, 4/27/2011] Lee Fang, a reporter for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, will write that the executive order could have a powerful impact on the USCOC. “[T]he White House’s disclosure rule threatens the entire existence of the Chamber,” Fang will write. “This is because the Chamber only exists to hide the identity of corporations seeking to fight nasty political battles without having their name or brand exposed. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the Chamber’s ‘most striking innovation has been to offer individual companies and industries the chance to use the chamber as a means of anonymously pursuing their own political ends.’ The Chamber’s members include defense contractors, bailed out banks, and other donors likely to be affected by the government contractor campaign disclosure rule.” Fang will also cite a recent plan by the USCOC to sabotage organizations that support Obama and Democratic candidates by using legally questionable tactics such as false entrapment strategies and even computer hacking (see February 10, 2011). The funding for the scheme was never made public. He also cites recent monies secured by the USCOC from foreign entities that, because of the Citizen United decision, could be flowing into US political activities without disclosure (see October 2010). [Think Progress, 4/27/2011] Republicans in Congress will move to pass legislation that would thwart the order, if it is ever issued (see May 26, 2011 and July 15, 2011).

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Fred Wertheimer, Blair Latoff, Business Roundtable, Jan Witold Baran, US Chamber of Commerce, Lee Fang, Wall Street Journal, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, Obama administration, Bruce Josten

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Bradley A. Smith, the chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) and a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) during the second Bush administration, writes that the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and the subsequent flood of corporate money into the political campaign continuum (see January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21-22, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, March 26, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, June 23, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 23, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, January 6, 2012, and January 10, 2012) are good for American politics. [US News and World Report, 1/13/2012] According to a 2008 press report, Smith co-founded the CCP in 2006 in order to roll back campaign finance regulations, claiming that virtually any regulation is bad for politics. Smith has refused to reveal the financial sponsors that gave him the “seed money” to start the organization. Smith helped win the landmark SpeechNow case (see March 26, 2010) that allowed for the creation of “super PACs,” the organizations that are primarily responsible for flooding the campaign with corporate money. According to law professor Richard Hasen, Smith and the CCP have worked diligently to bring cases like the SpeechNow case to the Supreme Court so that the conservative-dominated Court can “knock them out of the park.” [Politico, 8/12/2008] Smith now writes: “Super PACs are not an evil tolerated under the First Amendment—they are what the First Amendment is all about. A super PAC, after all, is simply a group of citizens pooling resources to speak out about politics.” He claims that super PACs merely “leveled the playing field” after Democrats and Democratic-supporting organizations consistently outfunded Republican campaigns during elections. Super PACs have kept the presidential campaigns of candidates such as Rick Santorum (R-GA—see February 16-17, 2012) and Newt Gingrich (see December 19, 2011 and January 6, 2012) alive. Smith predicts that Democrats will easily outspend Republicans again once the presidential primary campaign concludes (see Around October 27, 2010), November 1, 2010 and May 5, 2011), but says, “Super PACs, however, will help level the field.” Smith claims that super PACs “disclose all of their expenditures and all of their donors,” and claims that any information to the contrary is wrong, as it is “confusing super PACs with traditional nonprofits such as the NAACP or the Sierra Club.” He concludes: “Super PACs are helping to shatter the old, established order, create more competition, and break the hold of special interests lobbyists—big business actually joined the ‘reform’ community in opposing super PACs in court. Are super PACs harming politics? Of course not. How odd that anyone would think that more political speech was bad for democracy.” [US News and World Report, 1/13/2012] The Citizens United decision specifically allows for donors to super PACs to remain anonymous, despite Smith’s claims to the contrary (see January 27-29, 2010, July 26, 2010, July 26-27, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, Mid-October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, April 20, 2011, April 21, 2011 and After, July 12, 2011, and November 18, 2011). Republicans have fought to preserve that anonymity (see July 26-27, 2010, May 26, 2011, July 15, 2011, and July 20, 2011). Smith is correct in saying that traditional nonprofit groups must disclose their donors, though many are apparently failing to do so (see October 12, 2010).

Entity Tags: Rick Santorum, Center for Competitive Politics, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Newt Gingrich, Richard L. Hasen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

The news Web site Politico reports that many Democrats are worried that the “flat-out” opposition of President Obama to super PACs, including the one supporting his re-election, will cripple the Obama campaign’s re-election campaign for 2012, especially in the face of enormous corporate donations for Republican-supporting super PACs. The super PAC that supports Obama, Priorities USA Action, has been in operation since 2011, but has so far raised relatively little—around $5 million—in comparison to Republican super PACs and other such organizations. The super PAC supporting Republican contender Mitt Romney (R-MA), Restore Our Future (ROF—see June 23, 2011 and July 12, 2011), has raised $12 million so far, and other groups such as American Crossroads and its “nonprofit” affiliate, Crossroads GPS, have raised far more. Former South Carolina Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian, a member of the Obama campaign’s national finance committee, says: “I don’t think the president is just ambivalent about his super PAC. He’s flat-out opposed to it.… I was at the national finance committee in Chicago, and these are the people with these connections, and nobody was talking, even behind the scenes, about writing checks to the super PAC. That’s a problem. We didn’t make the rules. The president has called out the Supreme Court on Citizens United to their faces (see January 21, 2010, January 24, 2010, and January 27-29, 2010).… But it’s the state of play now, and we have to look at what Romney’s PAC did to [Republican primary challenger Newt Gingrich] in Iowa (see January 3, 2012). It’s dangerous. We can’t unilaterally disarm.” So far, Obama’s campaign has pledged that neither Obama nor his top aides will raise money for super PACs, but the campaign says it realizes the magnitude of the threat posed by the wide-open fundraising from the GOP. In a concession, Obama’s senior campaign staff will allow their top bundlers to ask wealthy contributors for donations to Priorities USA Action. Vice President Joseph Biden has already spoken before a meeting of major donors in November 2011, hours after those donors heard fundraising pitches from Priorities USA Action and other Democratic groups. Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who is helping the Obama campaign reach out to donors, says: “Super PACs are like guns. In the right hands, a gun is useful, essential for defending your country and perfectly acceptable. In the wrong hands, they kill people.… My goal is to make sure the president doesn’t get outgunned.” Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod says of the organizations lining up behind Romney: “They’re talking upwards of half a billion dollars in negative ads aimed at the president from interest groups who don’t disclose and who can raise unlimited amounts of money. That is a very, very concerning thing to me.” [Politico, 1/18/2012]

Entity Tags: David Axelrod, American Crossroads, 2012 Obama presidential election campaign, Willard Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Restore Our Future, Politico, Dick Harpootlian, Joseph Biden, Priorities USA Action, Newt Gingrich, American Crossroads GPS, Paul Begala

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

The Obama campaign reverses its previous policy and begins asking major contributors to donate to a super PAC, Priorities USA, that supports President Obama’s re-election. Previously, the Obama campaign, and Obama himself, had been reluctant to ask for donations for the PAC. Since 2010, Democrats have been worried about the effect of the Republican super PACs on the presidential campaign as well as Congressional and even state and local races, but have been divided on how to respond to the flood of money in support of their Republican opponents (see August 2, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 24, 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, Mid-November 2010, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, and January 6, 2012). Obama campaign spokesman Jim Messina says that Republican-supporting super PACs are collectively expected to spend “half a billion dollars, above and beyond what the Republican nominee and party are expected to commit to try to defeat the president. With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm.… We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back.” Messina also says that Obama is strongly against such campaign finance practices, and supports strong action “by constitutional amendment, if necessary” to once again restrict campaign donations from the wealthy. (In January 2012, Politico reported that Obama was completely opposed to the idea of super PACs, including his own—see January 18, 2012.) Joe Pounder of the Republican National Committee issues a statement harshly critical of the decision, which reads in part, “Yet again, Barack Obama has proven he will literally do anything to win an election, including changing positions on the type of campaign spending he called nothing short of ‘a threat to our democracy.’” So far, super PACs supporting Republican candidates have raised over $50 million, putting the Obama campaign at a distinct disadvantage. New York Democratic fundraiser Robert Zimmerman observes: “It’s hard to pass the plate for super PAC money while Democratic leaders have been preaching about the sins of it. But the reality is, it is essential in 2012.” Campaign and White House officials will appear at fundraisers for Priorities USA, though neither the president nor the first lady will make such appearances. Super PACs, created by the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and a lower court decision in the wake of that ruling (see March 26, 2010), have come to dominate US election activities, particularly in the area of television, radio, and print advertising. Shortly after the Citizens United decision, Obama criticized it during his State of the Union address, saying: “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems” (see January 27-29, 2010). However, Congress has been unable to rein in the super PACs, with the most visible effort, Congressional Democrats’ DISCLOSE Act, being successfully filibustered by Senate Republicans (see July 26-27, 2010). CBS News political expert John Dickerson says the Obama campaign has no choice but to emulate the Republicans: “What the Obama camp saw is these fundraising numbers from last year. The Republicans were able to raise so much money. They also saw what Romney was able to do to Newt Gingrich in Florida, just absolutely bury him under ads, and they started to worry about what this was going to mean for the president in the general election.” Dickerson says that with the public perception of Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) being so negative, the ads in support of Romney will undoubtedly be quite negative against Obama. Dickerson expects the Obama campaign to retaliate in kind, saying: “Some of the things that Romney had to do to combat those [primary] attacks, he had to get a little bit more negative, seem a little bit more unpleasant as a candidate.… That’s another reason why [Obama] had to make this decision on super PACs: that this is going to be ugly, it’s going to be on the airwaves, and they need to be able to compete.” [New York Times, 2/6/2012; CBS News, 2/7/2012] The Obama campaign’s announcement comes on the same day as news that the Romney campaign has benefited from $1.22 million in funding from oil, gas, and coal corporations (see February 6, 2012).

Entity Tags: Priorities USA Action, Barack Obama, 2012 Obama presidential election campaign, Jim Messina, John Dickerson, Willard Mitt Romney, Joe Pounder, Robert Zimmerman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Bradley A. Smith, the chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) and a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) during the George W. Bush administration, writes a second editorial for US News and World Report defending “super PACs,” the “independent” political entities responsible for infusing millions of dollars into the political campaign system. Smith wrote an editorial in January 2012 defending super PACs, claiming they are the direct outgrowth of First Amendment free-speech rights and are actually good for the campaign system (see January 13, 2012). However, as in his first editorial, Smith makes a number of false claims to bolster his arguments. Such organizations were created in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and the following SpeechNow.org decision (see March 26, 2010). He notes, correctly, that until 1974 there were no federal restrictions on super PACs, apparently referring to that year’s amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (see 1974), though he fails to note that such organizations did not exist until after the SpeechNow decision. He claims that “[t]here is no evidence that super PACs have led to a greater percentage of negative ads” than in earlier presidential campaigns, though he cites no evidence to that effect. He also claims, as he did in the first editorial, that it is false to claim super PACs “spend ‘secret’ money. This is just not true. By law, super PACs are required to disclose their donors. There are groups that have never had to disclose their donors, non-profits such as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and the NRA. If you want more disclosure, super PACs are a step forward.” Unfortunately, the Citizens United decision specifically allows donors to super PACs to remain anonymous, despite Smith’s claims to the contrary (see January 27-29, 2010, July 26, 2010, July 26-27, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, Mid-October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, April 20, 2011, April 21, 2011 and After, July 12, 2011, and November 18, 2011). Republicans have fought to preserve that anonymity (see July 26-27, 2010, May 26, 2011, July 15, 2011, and July 20, 2011). As in the first editorial, Smith is correct in saying that traditional nonprofit groups must disclose their donors, though many are apparently failing to do so (see October 12, 2010). He also claims that super PACs increase competition—“level the playing field,” as he wrote in the first editorial—by allowing Republican candidates to equal the spending of their Democratic opponents. In reality, Republicans have outstripped Democrats in outside, super PAC spending since the Citizens United decision (see Around October 27, 2010, November 1, 2010, and May 5, 2011). Smith bolsters his claim by citing direct campaign spending as offsetting “independent” super PAC spending, such as in the 2010 US House race involving incumbent Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who won re-election even after a $500,000 super PAC-driven effort on behalf of his challenger. DeFazio, Smith claims, “outspent his opponent by a sizable margin and won. Still, for the first time in years he had to campaign hard for his constituents’ support. That’s a good thing.” He cites the presidential campaigns of Republican contenders Newt Gingrich (R-GA—see December 19, 2011 and January 6, 2012) and Rick Santorum (R-PA—see February 16-17, 2012), which have relied on the contributions of a very few extraordinarily wealthy contributors to keep their candidacies alive against the frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA), whose own super PAC funding is extraordinary (see June 23, 2011). And, he writes, super PAC spending “improves voter knowledge of candidates and issues. Indeed, political ads are frequently a better source of information for voters than news coverage.” The most important benefit of the two Court decisions and the subsequent influx of corporate money into the US election continuum (see January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21-22, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, March 26, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, June 23, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 23, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, January 6, 2012, January 10, 2012, and January 23, 2012), he writes, “is that they get government out of the business of regulating political speech. Who would say that you can’t spend your own time and money to state your own political beliefs? Vindicating that fundamental First Amendment right is good for democracy.” [US News and World Report, 2/17/2012]

Entity Tags: Newt Gingrich, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Center for Competitive Politics, Peter DeFazio, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Willard Mitt Romney, Federal Election Commission, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jeffrey Toobin in 2007.Jeffrey Toobin in 2007. [Source: Wikimedia]Author and political pundit, Jeffrey Toobin, publishes an in-depth article for the New Yorker showing that Chief Justice John Roberts engineered the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010), moving it from a case that could well have been considered and decided on a relatively narrow basis to a sweeping decision that reformed the nation’s campaign finance structure. Toobin writes that the underlying issue was quite narrow: the conservative advocacy organization Citizens United (CU) wanted to run a documentary attacking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) on “video on demand” cable broadcast (see January 10-16, 2008). Under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation (see March 27, 2002 and December 10, 2003), the Federal Election Commission (FEC) disallowed the broadcast because it would come 30 days or less before primary elections. CU challenged the decision in court (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). [New Yorker, 5/21/2012] Toobin’s article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Oath: The Obama White House vs. The Supreme Court. It is dated May 21, but appears on the New Yorker’s Web site on May 14. [Tom Goldstein, 5/14/2012]
Oral Arguments - During the initial arguments (see March 15, 2009), attorney Theodore Olson, the former solicitor general for the Bush administration, argued a narrow case: that McCain-Feingold’s prohibitions only applied to television commercials, not to full-length documentary films. Olson argued, “This sort of communication was not something that Congress intended to prohibit.” Toobin writes: “Olson’s argument indicated that there was no need for the Court to declare any part of the law unconstitutional, or even to address the First Amendment implications of the case. Olson simply sought a judgment that McCain-Feingold did not apply to documentaries shown through video on demand.… If the justices had resolved the case as Olson had suggested, today Citizens United might well be forgotten—a narrow ruling on a remote aspect of campaign-finance law.” However, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most vocal opponents of campaign finance restrictions on the Court (see September 26, 1986, December 15, 1986, March 27, 1990, June 26, 1996, June 16, 2003, December 10, 2003, and June 25, 2007), seemed disappointed in the limited nature of Olson’s argument, Toobin writes. The oral arguments expand the case far beyond Olson’s initial position. Olson’s initial intention was to narrow the case so that the Court would not have to expand its scope to find in favor of CU.
Change of Scope - Ironically, the government’s lead lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, may well have changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation. Traditionally, lawyers with the solicitor general (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. Toobin writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who had clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. But, Toobin writes, Stewart fell into a trap, prompted by Justice Samuel Alito’s pointed questioning about the government’s ability to ban or censor printed materials—i.e. books—under McCain-Feingold—and follow-up questions by Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, that led him to claim incorrectly that the government could indeed censor books under the law. Stewart’s incorrect assertion gave Roberts and his colleagues the chance to overturn McCain-Feingold on the grounds of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Second Arguments - The second arguments were held on September 9, 2009 (see September 9, 2009). The concept of “money equals speech” goes back at least as far as the 1976 Buckley decision (see January 30, 1976), and the five conservative justices were poised to stretch that definition much farther than has previously been done.
Majority Opinion - Toobin writes that Roberts’s decision was then to decide “how much he wanted to help the Republican Party. Roberts’s choice was: a lot.” Roberts assigned the opinion to Kennedy, the “swing” justice who had already written an expansive opinion gutting almost a century’s worth of campaign finance legislation. Kennedy tends to “swing wildly in one direction or another,” Toobin writes, “an extremist—of varied enthusiasms.” In the area of campaign finance, he has consistently “swung” to the conservative side of the argument. He is, Toobin writes, “extremely receptive to arguments that the government had unduly restricted freedom of speech—especially in the area of campaign finance.” Moreover, Kennedy enjoys writing controversial and “high-profile” opinions. Toobin says that Roberts’s choice of Kennedy to write the opinion was clever: Roberts came onto the Court promising to conduct himself with judicial modesty and a respect for precedent. Kennedy, with his draft opinion at the ready, was a better choice to write an opinion that lacked either modesty or a respect for Court precedence. Roberts, Toobin writes, “obtained a far-reaching result without leaving his own fingerprints.” Kennedy, in an often-eloquent opinion that did not deal with the gritty reality of the Citizens United case, stated that any restraint of money in a campaign risked infringing on free speech. “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.… By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker’s voice. The government may not by these means deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration. The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.” Kennedy also reaffirmed the Court’s perception that corporations deserve the same First Amendment protections enjoyed by individuals. Kennedy’s opinion found, in Toobin’s words, that “[t]he Constitution required that all corporations, for-profit and nonprofit alike, be allowed to spend as much as they wanted, anytime they wanted, in support of the candidates of their choosing.” One of the only provisions remaining in McCain-Feingold after Kennedy’s opinion was the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates.
Fiery Dissent from 'Liberal' Stevens - Toobin reminds readers that the elder statesman of the “liberal” wing of the Court at the time, John Paul Stevens, is a “moderate Midwestern Republican,” one of the last of a “vanishing political tradition.” Though Stevens’s views have migrated left on some issues, such as the death penalty, Toobin writes that the perception of Stevens as a Court liberal is mostly because of the Court’s steady progression to the right. Toobin writes that the 90-year-old Stevens has grown dispirited in recent years, as the conservative wing of the Court, led by Scalia, Alito, and Roberts with Clarence Thomas and often Kennedy in tow, overturned one Court precedent after another. “The course of Citizens United represented everything that offended Stevens most about the Roberts Court,” Toobin writes. Much of Stevens’s objections to the Roberts Court are rooted in procedure; he is deeply troubled by the Citizens United case being transformed by Roberts and his conservative colleagues from a narrowly focused case about a single McCain-Feingold provision to what Toobin calls “an assault on a century of federal laws and precedents. To Stevens, it was the purest kind of judicial activism.” Stevens wrote in his angry dissent, “Five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” A simple change in the McCain-Feingold law to disallow its application to full-length documentaries the CU case was sparked by, or even to nonprofit organizations such as CU, would have been appropriate, Stevens wrote. He penned a 90-page dissent, the longest of his career, blasting almost every aspect of Kennedy’s decision, starting with Kennedy’s ignoring of precedent and continuing with a refutation of Kennedy’s perception of the Constitutional definitions of “censorship” and “free speech.” Stevens was angered by Kennedy’s equivocation of corporations with people. “The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare,” he wrote. “Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.” Congress has drawn significant distinctions between corporations and people for over a century, he wrote: “at the federal level, the express distinction between corporate and individual political spending on elections stretches back to 1907, when Congress passed the Tillman Act” (see 1907). He even challenged Kennedy’s stated fear that the government might persecute individuals’ speech based on “the speaker’s identity,” sarcastically noting that Kennedy’s opinion “would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ [a famed Japanese propagandist] during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.” According to Toobin, Stevens’s law clerks disliked the dated reference, but Stevens, a Navy veteran, insisted on keeping it. Toobin writes that “Stevens’s conclusion was despairing.” Stevens concluded: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.… It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Toobin notes that as “impressive” as Stevens’s dissent may have been, it was Kennedy’s opinion that “was reshaping American politics.”
Reaction - In his State of the Union address six days after the verdict, President Obama referenced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concerns about foreign influence in American politics by saying, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections” (see January 27-29, 2010). Democrats cheered as Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.” Alito’s mouthing of the words “not true” stirred some controversy; Toobin notes that Alito was technically correct, as “Kennedy’s opinion expressly reserved the question of whether the ruling applied to foreign corporations.” However, Toobin notes, “as Olson had argued before the justices, the logic of the Court’s prior decisions suggested that foreign corporations had equal rights to spend in American elections.” With the Citizens United decision and a March 2010 decision that allowed for the formation of “super PACs” (see March 26, 2010), the way was clear for what Toobin calls “presidential campaigns in 2012 that were essentially underwritten by single individuals.” He notes the billionaires that almost single-handedly supported Republican presidential candidates (see February 21, 2012, February 16-17, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 26, 2012, and April 22, 2012), and the efforts of organizations like Crossroads GPS that have to date raised tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates (see May 2, 2012). Toobin believes that the Court will continue to deregulate campaign finance, noting the 2011 decision that invalidated Arizona’s system of public financing that state enacted after a series of campaign finance scandals (see June 27, 2011). He concludes, “The Roberts Court, it appears, will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom to raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Criticisms of the Article - Toobin’s article will engender significant criticism, from nuanced questioning of particular elements of Toobin’s story (see May 14, 2012) to accusations of outright “fictionalizing” (see May 17, 2012) and “libelous” claims (see May 15-17, 2012).

Entity Tags: Clarence Thomas, US Supreme Court, Citizens United, Barack Obama, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, American Crossroads GPS, Tillman Act, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens, John G. Roberts, Jr, Malcolm Stewart, Jeffrey Toobin, Republican Party, Hillary Clinton, Samuel Alito, Federal Election Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens lambasts the Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), in which he strongly dissented (see May 14, 2012). Stevens has criticized the decision in earlier statements. He continues that trend in a speech given to the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. He agrees with President Obama’s warning that “foreign entities” could bankroll US elections (see January 27-29, 2010 and October 2010), and challenges the Court to prove that such concerns are “not true,” as Justice Samuel Alito famously mouthed during Obama’s speech at the time by reconciling the Court’s finding that the First Amendment “generally prohibits the suppression of political speech based on the speaker’s identity” with its subsequent decision to uphold a ban on campaign spending by non-citizens in Bluman v. Federal Election Commission (see August 8, 2011). Alito’s reaction to Obama’s warning “persuade[s] me that that in due course it will be necessary for the Court to issue an opinion explicitly crafting an exception that will create a crack in the foundation of the Citizens United majority opinion,” Stevens says. In doing so, “it will be necessary to explain why the First Amendment provides greater protection to the campaign speech of some non-voters than to that of other non-voters.” Stevens is referring to corporations and labor unions as “non-voters,” as is the Canadian citizen who filed the Bluman lawsuit. The Bluman case, Stevens says, “unquestionably provided the Court with an appropriate opportunity to explain why the president had misinterpreted the Court’s opinion in Citizens United. [T]he Court instead took the surprising action of simply affirming the district court without comment and without dissent.” Stevens says the two cases pose a legal conundrum—“notwithstanding the broad language used by the majority in Citizens United, it is now settled, albeit unexplained, that the identity of some speakers may provide a legally acceptable basis for restricting speech.” At some point, Stevens says, the Court will have to grapple with the effects of the decision. “I think it is likely that when the Court begins to spell out which categories of non-voters should receive the same protections as the not-for-profit Citizens United advocacy group, it will not only exclude terrorist organizations and foreign agents, but also all corporations owned or controlled by non-citizens, and possibly even those in which non-citizens have a substantial interest. Where that line will actually be drawn will depend on an exercise of judgment by the majority of members of the Court, rather than on any proposition of law identified in the Citizens United majority opinion.” Stevens does not explicitly reference the upcoming Court case where it will have to rule on Montana’s ban on corporate spending (see December 30, 2011 and After, January 4, 2012, February 10-17, 2012, and April 30, 2012), but he says the Court was wrong to overturn a precedent that allows states to bar corporate spending from outside their borders. For states such as Montana with those laws in effect, “those corporate non-voters were comparable to the non-voting foreign corporations that concerned President Obama when he criticized the Citizens United majority opinion.” He says, “If the First Amendment does not protect the right of a graduate of Harvard Law School to spend his own money to support the candidate of his choice simply because his Canadian citizenship deprives him of the right to participate in our elections, the fact that corporations may be owned or controlled by Canadians—indeed, in my judgment, the fact that corporations have no right to vote—should give Congress the power to exclude them from direct participation in the electoral process.” [Huffington Post, 5/30/2012; University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, 5/30/2012 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Samuel Alito, Barack Obama, Citizens United, US Supreme Court, Clinton School of Public Service, John Paul Stevens

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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