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After Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court fails (see July 1-October 23, 1987), President Reagan nominates an equally hard-line conservative, appeals court judge Douglas Ginsberg. Ginsberg withdraws his nomination after the press learns that he had ignored a serious conflict-of-interest problem while at the Department of Justice, that he had smoked marijuana as both a student and a professor at Harvard Law School, and that, though Ginsberg professes to be stringently anti-abortion, his wife is a doctor who has herself performed abortions. Reagan will nominate a third and final selection for the Court, the somewhat more moderate Anthony Kennedy. (Sabato 1998; http://www.fjc.gov/servlet/tGetInfo?jid=864 9/26/2006; Dean 2007, pp. 143-144)
The US Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, gives states significant rights to regulate or constrain the availability of abortions. The ruling splits the Court in a 5-4 vote. The case allows states to restrict the use of public money, medical personnel, or facilities in performing abortions. It upholds a Missouri law that restricts the use of state funds, facilities, and employees in performing, counseling, or assisting with abortions. It adds restrictions to rights previously thought upheld and granted by the Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (see January 22, 1973). The Missouri law holds that “the life of each human being begins at conception” and “unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being,” assumptions specifically not granted under federal laws and court decisions. The opinion is written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and joined by Justices Byron “Whizzer” White and Anthony Kennedy. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia form the majority vote with concurrent opinions; in his opinion, Scalia lambasts the other justices for not overturning Roe in its entirety. Justice Harry Blackmun joins Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens in dissenting from the majority verdict. Blackmun writes that the decision can be interpreted to overturn Roe entirely, and writes, “I fear for the future… a chill wind blows.” (Oyez 1989; Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (No. 88-605) 7/3/1989; FindLaw 7/3/1989; CBS News 4/19/2007)
The Supreme Court, in the case of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, rules that the Michigan Chamber of Commerce (MCC) cannot run newspaper advertisements in support of a candidate for the state legislature because the MCC is subject to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, which prohibits corporations from using treasury money to support or oppose candidates running for state offices. The Court finds that corporations can use money only from funds specifically designated for political purposes. The MCC holds a political fund separate from its other monies, but wanted to use money from its general fund to buy political advertising, and sued for the right to do so. The case explored whether a Michigan law prohibiting such political expenditures is constitutional. The Court agrees 7-2 that it is constitutional. Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy dissent, arguing that the government should not require such “segregated” funds, but should allow corporations and other such entities to spend their money on political activities without such restraints. (Public Resource (.org) 1990; Casebriefs 2012; Moneyocracy 2/2012) The 2010 Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010) will overturn this decision, with Scalia and Kennedy voting in the majority, and Kennedy writing the majority opinion.
In the case of Shaw v. Reno, the US Supreme Court rules 5-4 that white residents in majority-black electoral districts can file lawsuits to challenge the drawing of those districts if they feel “traditional redistricting principles” were subordinated to racial concerns. The Court rules that legislative districts drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see June 29, 1989) cannot consider race any more than is necessary, and must not be “bizarrely shaped.” The case turned on efforts by the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) to redistrict the state in an unusually irregular fashion; the plaintiffs brought suit charging that the only possible reason North Carolina could have had in such a redistricting was to segregate races for the purpose of voting. After the 1990 census, North Carolina earned a 12th seat in the US House of Representatives. The NCGA drew up a new map that created a majority-black district, and, after the attorney general objected to the mapping under Section 5 of the VRA, redrew the map to create a second majority-black district. The plaintiffs called the map an example of unlawful gerrymandering. The Court agrees that the redistricting is unlawful gerrymandering, and sends the case back to the NCGA for new mapping. Redistricting can use race as a factor without overtly discriminating against a particular race, the Court finds, but the irregular, “bizarrely shaped” districts created by the NCGA constitute what is, essentially, “political apartheid.” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. The dissenters include Justices Harry Blackmun, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Byron White. The dissenters claim that the plaintiffs failed to present a legitimate claim because they did not claim a cognizable injury. However, the dissenters note, the gerrymandering of the North Carolina districts is apparent, though “benign,” as it was done to, at least some extent, facilitate the election of black representatives to Congress. In 2012, Casebriefs will observe, “This case involved two of the most complex and sensitive issues the Court has faced in recent years: the meaning of the constitutional ‘right’ to vote and the propriety of race-based state legislation designed to benefit members of historically disadvantaged minority groups.” (American Civil Liberties Union 2012; Casebriefs 2012; Oyez (.org) 7/21/2012)
The Supreme Court rules in the case of Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Committee. The case originated with advertisements run by the Colorado Republican Party (CRP) in 1986 attacking the Colorado Democratic Party’s likely US Senate candidate. Neither party had yet selected its candidate for that position. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) sued the CRP’s Federal Campaign Committee, saying that its actions violated the “party expenditure provision” of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) by spending more than the law allows. The CRP in turn claimed that FECA violated its freedom of speech, and filed a counterclaim. A Colorado court ruled in favor of the CRP, dismissing the counterclaim as moot, but an appeals court overturned the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court rules 7-2 in favor of the FEC. The decision is unusual, lacking a clear majority, but being comprised of a “plurality” of concurrences. The majority opinion, such as it is, is authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court liberals, and is joined by fellow liberal David Souter and conservative Sandra Day O’Connor. Conservatives Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia go farther than Breyer’s majority decision, writing that the provision violates the First Amendment when it restricts as a “contribution” a political party’s spending “in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with a candidate.” In yet another concurrence, conservative Clarence Thomas argues that the entire provision is flatly unconstitutional. Liberals John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissent, agreeing with the appeals court. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012) In 2001, the Court will revisit the case and find its initial ruling generally sound, though the later decision will find that some spending restrictions are constitutional. In the revisiting, four of the Court’s five conservatives will dissent, with the liberals joined by O’Connor. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)
The Bush presidential campaign files a petition in the US Supreme Court, asking the Court to review the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that Florida can continue manual recounts, and that those new recount tallies be included in the final election results (see November 20-21, 2000). Bush lawyers argue that the Supreme Court effectively rewrote Florida election law in mandating the recount tallies be counted, by essentially changing the law after the election had occurred; they also argue that Florida judges have no jurisdiction or legal authoritiy to order Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (see After 3:30 a.m. November 8, 2000 and After) to consider manually recounted votes. Both arguments are considered somewhat abstruse and technical. The Bush campaign also claims, with little legal backing, that to recount the votes violates constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. Gore lawyers say that the matter is up to the state courts, and is not a federal matter warranting the involvement of the US Supreme Court. The Court agrees to hear the case, and sets the hearing date for December 1, 2000. (Supreme Court of the United States 11/22/2000 ; Certiorari Granted 11/24/2000 ; Guardian 11/25/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004; Leip 2008) “We believe we stand on both strong political and legal ground for fighting beyond Sunday,” says Gore campaign adviser Ron Klain. After the Court agrees to hear the case, Harris, the co-chair of Florida’s Bush campaign team, says she is ready to certify the election for George W. Bush tomorrow night regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing. “The Department of State is prepared for the earliest contingency, which would be certification Sunday evening,” her chief of staff Ben McKay says. “This will be done publicly regardless of the outcome, which is, of course, unknown at this time.” (Guardian 11/25/2000) Many Court observers, and some of the justices themselves, are surprised that the case is being heard. The Bush petition for certiorari, or for the Court to take the case, comes to Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose task it is to consider emergency motions from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Kennedy pushes his colleagues to take the case, arguing that the Court is the true and ultimate arbiter of such matters, though he concedes that the Bush petition is legally questionable. The Court’s conservative bloc—Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000), and Chief Justice William Rehnquist—agree to hear the case. (Court rules mandate that the consent of four justices, not a majority, is enough to hear a case.) The case is to be expedited in a way far different from the usual sedately paced Court proceedings. The sudden urgency has Court clerks scrambling to change their Thanksgiving plans and contacting the justices they work for. The clerks for the four liberal justices, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, are dismayed by the entire situation. “We changed our minds every five minutes about whether the fix was in,” one clerk later recalls. The liberal clerks find it almost impossible to believe that any Court justice would consider interceding in what is by constitutional definition an executive and legislative matter. Justice Stevens is not convinced of his conservative colleagues’ restraint, and begins drafting a dissent from what he fears will be a majority opinion granting Bush the election. The early draft focuses on the reasons why the Court should have never accepted the case. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The clerks for the four liberal justices at the Supreme Court—John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—continue their speculation as to whether the Court will actually attempt to decide the presidential election ((see November 20-21, 2000 and November 22-24, 2000), especially in light of Florida’s recent attempt to certify George W. Bush as the winner (see 7:30 p.m. November 26, 2000). At a November 29 dinner attended by clerks from several justices, a clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor tells the group that O’Connor is determined to overturn the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to go ahead with manual recounts of election ballots (see 3:00 p.m., November 16, 2000). One clerk recalls the O’Connor clerk saying, “she thought the Florida court was trying to steal the election and that they had to stop it.” O’Connor has the reputation of deciding an issue on her “gut,” then finding legal justifications for supporting her decision. Unbeknownst to anyone outside the Court, O’Connor has already made up her mind. Gore lawyers in particular will spend endless hours trying to craft arguments to sway her vote, when the actual case will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who originally wanted to accept the case. Many clerks of both liberal and conservative justices have little respect or regard for Kennedy. They consider him, according to a 2004 Vanity Fair article, “pompous and grandiloquent.” They believe he fills his office with elaborate, expensive decorations and trappings, including an elaborate chandelier, to give the idea of his power and importance. “The clerks saw his public persona—the very public way in which he boasted of often agonizing over decisions—as a kind of shtick, a very conspicuous attempt to exude fairness and appear moderate, even when he’d already made up his mind,” according to the Vanity Fair article. Conservative clerks suspect Kennedy of untoward liberal leanings, and have taken steps to ensure that the clerks he receives are ideologically sound. One liberal clerk later explains the conservative justices’ reasoning, saying, “The premise is that he can’t think by himself, and that he can be manipulated by someone in his second year of law school.” By now, Kennedy is surrounded by clerks from the hard-right Federalist Society. “He had four very conservative, Federalist Society white guys, and if you look at the portraits of law clerks on his wall, that’s true nine times out of 10,” another liberal law clerk will recall. “They were by far the least diverse group of clerks.” The conservative and liberal clerks do not socialize with one another as a rule, so it is unusual when, a day after the clerk dinner, Kevin Martin, a clerk for conservative justice Antonin Scalia, visits Stevens’s chambers. Martin went to Columbia Law School with Stevens’s clerk Anne Voigts, and he wants to see if he can explain to her the conservatives’ judicial point of view. However, two other Stevens clerks, Eduardo Penalver and Andrew Siegel, believe Martin is on some sort of reconnaissance mission, attempting to find out what grounds Stevens will cite to argue against overturning the Florida decision. Penalver and Siegel believe Martin is trying to manipulate Voigts, and Martin, after telling them to “F_ck off!” storms out of Stevens’s chambers. Clerks from O’Connor’s staff pay similar visits to other liberal justices, though these conversations do not end so contentiously. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004) O’Connor said to partygoers when the news networks announced the election for Al Gore, “This is terrible” (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000).
The US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the Bush presidential campaign’s challenge on constitutional grounds of Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on selective manual recounts (see November 20-21, 2000). The case is Bush v. Palm Beach Canvassing Board. Throngs of protesters surround the Supreme Court building. Inside, the justices’ questions indicate that they are divided on the legality of the Florida high court’s intervention, and some justices seem to think that Florida courts should resolve the issue. Justice Anthony Kennedy says, “We’re looking for a federal issue.” Justice Stephen Breyer asks, “What’s the consequence of our going one way or the other now in this case?” Observers will later describe Laurence Tribe, an experienced Supreme Court litigator representing the Gore campaign, as listless and flat, while Theodore Olson, arguing the Bush campaign’s case, is “more impressive.” Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia give the impression that they believe the Florida Supreme Court encroached on the Florida legislature’s bailiwick. Justices Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) express their irritation with the Gore arguments. When the arguments are over, the justices meet in chambers for the usual conference. At one end of the argument is Scalia, who wants to overturn the Florida decision and in essence award George W. Bush the election, and at the other, Justice John Paul Stevens, who wants the Court to stay out of the case altogether. Neither justice can command a majority among the other seven. Rehnquist begins drafting a ruling asking the Florida high court to clarify its ruling, to cite the state constitution in its decision (which the Bush team had argued would have been improper), or under state law (which the Bush team had found arguably permissible). All nine justices eventually sign onto Rehnquist’s opinion. A 2004 Vanity Fair article will observe: “The unanimity was, in fact, a charade; four of the justices had no beef at all with the Florida Supreme Court, while at least four others were determined to overturn it. But this way each side could claim victory: the liberal-to-moderate justices had spared the Court a divisive and embarrassing vote on the merits, one they’d probably have lost anyway. As for the conservatives, by eating up Gore’s clock—Gore’s lawyers had conceded that everything had to be resolved by December 12—they had all but killed his chances to prevail, and without looking needlessly partisan in the process. With the chastened Florida court unlikely to intervene again, the election could now stagger to a close, with the Court’s reputation intact, and with Bush all but certain to win.” On December 4, in a setback for the Gore campaign, the Court unanimously sets aside the Florida Supreme Court ruling and remands for clarification the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. (Supreme Court of the United States 12/4/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004; Leip 2008)
The Bush campaign seeks stays in the Florida Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court regarding the acceptance of 43,852 “undervote” recounts in Florida counties. Most importantly, the Bush campaign also asks the US Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which would declare its candidate the winner of the Florida presidential election. Both the Florida Supreme Court and Eleventh Appeals Court refuse to issue the stay. Most observers believe that if the recounts are completed and their vote totals tabulated, Democrat Al Gore will win enough votes to win Florida, and thusly become president. Currently Republican George W. Bush has a mere 193-vote lead (see December 7-8, 2000), and recount totals from Miami-Dade County alone are expected to give Gore more than this amount. One example of the problematic situation in Florida is with Duval County, which includes the city of Jacksonville, where claims of massive African-American disenfranchsement and discrimination (see November 7, 2000) have already tainted the balloting. Duval has 4,967 undervotes, but they are mixed in with 291,000 others, all stored in boxes in a vault. The all-Republican electoral board, as seen on national television, has begun examining ballots, but as The Guardian observes, “with such painstaking reluctance to proceed, it amounted to an effective filibuster.” Democratic spokeswoman Jenny Backus tells reporters, “What we’ve heard is that they’re going to try to slow this down by every means they can.” However, the US Supreme Court issues the requested stay and the undervote tabulation stops. The Court does not issue the requested writ of certiorari. (Supreme Court of the United States 12/8/2000 ; Supreme Court of the United States 12/9/2000 ; Vulliamy and Borger 12/10/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Leip 2008) The divide among the nine US Supreme Court justices is plain. The five conservative justices, led by Antonin Scalia, have since December 4 been circulating memos among themselves and their clerks, bouncing various arguments off one another in what the liberal justices’ clerks feel is an attempt to audition and solidify their arguments in favor of overturning the Florida high court’s decision and giving the presidency to Bush. The four liberal justices, led by John Paul Stevens, have long felt that the Court had no business being involved in the issue, that it was instead up to the Florida judiciary and legislature to settle the matter. Stevens, writing the anticipated dissent for the minority, has to ask the majority for more time to complete his dissent, so eager are they to issue their ruling. When Scalia sees in Stevens’s dissent the line that says, “counting every legally cast vote cannot constitute irreparable harm”—a direct rebuke to Scalia’s earlier argument that the Florida recounts would do “irreparable harm” to a Bush presidency—Scalia inadvertently delays the proceedings to write his own angry rejoinder, which reads in part, “Count first, and rule upon legality afterwards, is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires.” Scalia’s nakedly partisan stance discomfits even some of the other conservative justices’ clerks and angers the liberal clerks. “The Court had worked hard to claim a moral high ground, but at that moment he pissed it away,” one later recalls. “And there was a certain amount of glee. He’d made our case for us to the public about how crassly partisan the whole thing was.” After Scalia finishes his rejoinder, the Court issues its stay, stopping all further recounts. Gore himself, unaware of the arguments and partisanship dividing the Court, still holds out hope that one of the conservatives—O’Connor or Anthony Kennedy, perhaps (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000))—can be reached. “Please be sure that no one trashes the Court,” he admonishes his staffers. Gore decides to have campaign lawyer David Boies instead of Laurence Tribe argue the campaign’s case in the upcoming arguments, perhaps hoping that Boies, more moderate than the outspokenly liberal Tribe, might win some support from either Kennedy or O’Connor. Boies has also been representing Gore in Florida, and can presumably reassure the justices of the fundamental fairness of what is happening there. The liberal clerks have no such illusions. What hopes they have now are pinned on the press. One has heard a rumor that the Wall Street Journal is preparing to publish a story reporting that O’Connor had been overheard at a dinner party expressing her opposition to a Gore presidency; that report, the clerks hope, might force O’Connor to recuse herself from the decision and tie the court at 4-4. However, O’Connor has no such intention. Gore’s lawyers, aware of O’Connor’s statements, consider asking her to recuse herself, but decide instead to restrain themselves in hopes that she will, according to a 2004 Vanity Fair article, “now lean toward them to prove her fairness.” (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The US Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments in the lawsuit Bush v. Gore on the Florida recounts and election results. The Bush campaign has challenged the legality of a Florida Supreme Court ruling mandating the recounting of “undervote” ballots (see December 7-8, 2000). Bush lawyers argue that manual recounts violate the Constitution’s mandate of equal protection. Gore lawyers argue that the overriding issue is the importance of counting each vote cast. By the afternoon, the public is hearing the arguments via audiotapes. Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the Court’s most hardline conservatives, drew criticism when he said in an earlier opinion that the majority of the Court believed that George W. Bush had “a substantial probability of success,” a conclusion disputed by other justices such as John Paul Stevens. Scalia now says that he is inclined to vote in favor of Bush because, he says, “the counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm [to Bush]” (see December 8-9, 2000). (Kettle 12/11/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Leip 2008)
Kennedy Determines that 'Equal Protection' Is Key to Reversing Florida Decision - Al Gore’s lawyers, led by David Boies, believe that one of the Bush team’s arguments is flawed: the idea that the Florida Supreme Court exceeded its bounds restricts one appellate court far more than another appellate court is willing to condone. Unbeknownst to the Gore lawyers, Justice Anthony Kennedy agrees with the Gore team on this issue. Kennedy has no intention of finding in favor of the Gore position, but he does want the other four conservatives on the bench to come together behind the Bush argument that using different standards for ballot evaluation in different counties violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, an argument that most of the justices, litigants, and clerks have not considered up until now. As a practical matter, enforcing a single standard of ballot evaluation among the disparate Florida counties would be virtually impossible. And the Court under the leadership of Chief Justice William Rehnquist has, until now, been reluctant to interpret the equal-protection clause except in the narrowest of circumstances. Neither the Bush nor the Gore lawyers had given that argument a lot of attention, but it will prove the linchpin of the Court’s majority decision. As oral arguments proceed, and Kennedy pretends to not understand why this is a federal argument, clerks for the liberal justices find themselves sourly amused at Kennedy’s pretense. “What a joke,” one says to another. When Kennedy cues Bush lawyer Theodore Olson that he is interested in the equal protection clause as an argument—“I thought your point was that the process is being conducted in violation of the equal-protection clause, and it is standardless”—Olson quickly pivots and begins building his case under that rubric. Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter use the equal-protection argument to suggest that the best and simplest solution is simply to remand the case back to the Florida Supreme Court and ask it to set a uniform standard. Breyer has been working for days to convince Kennedy to join the four liberals in sending the case back to Florida, and for a time during the oral arguments, believes he may have succeeded. The liberal clerks have no such hopes; they believe, correctly, that Kennedy is merely pretending to consider the option. “He probably wanted to think of himself as having wavered,” one clerk later says. A brief private chat with Scalia and his clerks during oral arguments may have swayed Kennedy back into the fold, assuming he is wavering at all.
Demands for Identical Standards among All Florida Counties - Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) rails at Boies over the idea that the 67 counties cannot all have the same standards of ballot evaluation, and shows impatience with Boies’s explanation that for over 80 years, the Florida courts have put the idea of “voter intent” over identical ballot identification standards. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The US Supreme Court issues a ruling in Bush v. Gore (see December 11, 2000) that essentially declares George W. Bush (R-TX) the winner of the Florida presidential election, and thusly the winner of the US presidential election (see Mid-to-Late November 2000). The decision in Bush v. Gore is so complex that the Court orders that it not be used as precedent in future decisions. The 5-4 decision is split along ideological lines, with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) and Anthony Kennedy, two “moderate conservatives,” casting the deciding votes. In the per curium opinion, the Court finds: “Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date will be unconstitutional… we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed.… It is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work.” The decision says that the recounts as ordered by the Florida Supreme Court suffer from constitutional problems (see December 7-8, 2000). The opinion states that differing vote-counting standards from county to county and the lack of a single judicial officer to oversee the recount violate the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The majority opinion effectively precludes Vice President Al Gore from attempting to seek any other recounts on the grounds that a recount could not be completed by December 12, in time to certify a conclusive slate of electors. The Court sends the case back to the Florida Supreme Court “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.” Four justices issue stinging dissents. Justice John Paul Stevens writes: “One thing… is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer adds that “in this highly politicized matter, the appearance of a split decision runs the risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the court itself.” (Per Curiam (Bush et al v. Gore et al) 12/12/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Leip 2008)
Drafting Opinions - After oral arguments concluded the day before, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that if they were to remand the case back to Florida, that order must go out immediately in light of the approaching deadline for certification of results; Stevens quickly wrote a one-paragraph opinion remanding the case back to Florida and circulated it, though with no real hope that it would be adopted. The five conservative justices are determined to reverse the Florida decision. For the rest of the evening and well into the next day, December 12, the justices work on their opinions. Stevens prepares the main dissent, with the other three liberal justices preparing their own concurrences. Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg find no support whatsoever for the equal-protection argument, and say so in their writings. Justices Breyer and David Souter give the idea some weight; Souter says that the idea of uniform standards is a good one, but these standards should be created and imposed by the Florida judiciary or legislature. Stopping the recounts solves nothing, he writes. It soon becomes apparent that neither Kennedy nor O’Connor share Rehnquist’s ideas on the jurisdiction of the Florida court, and will not join him in that argument. Kennedy writes the bulk of the majority opinion; as predicted, his opinion focuses primarily on the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The liberal justices and clerks find Kennedy’s reasoning that stopping the recounts is the only way to ensure equal protection entirely unconvincing. Anthony Scalia circulates a sealed memo complaining about the tone of some of the dissents, asking that the dissenters not call into question the Court’s credibility. (His memo prompts Ginsburg to remove a footnote from her dissent commenting on Florida’s disenfranchised African-American voters; some of the liberal clerks see the incident as Ginsburg being bullied into compliance by Scalia. Subsequent investigations show that thousands of legitimate African-Americans were indeed disenfranchised—see November 7, 2000.) Kennedy sends a memo accusing the dissenters of “trashing the Court,” and says that the dissenters actually agree with his equal-protection argument far more than they want to admit. When he has a line inserted into his opinion reading, “Eight Justices of the Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court that demand a remedy,” some of Stevens’s clerks angrily telephone Kennedy’s clerks and accuse them of misrepresenting Stevens’s position. They demand that the line be removed. Kennedy refuses, and Stevens rewrites his opinion so that he is no longer associated with the position. Kennedy is forced to rewrite the statement to say that “seven,” not “eight” justices agree with his position. One of Stevens’s clerks, Eduardo Penalver, tells Kennedy clerk Grant Dixton that what Kennedy had done was disgusting and unprofessional. Breyer and his clerks are also unhappy about Kennedy’s assertion, but take no action. The line prompts many in the media to claim, falsely, that the decision is a 7-2 split and not a 5-4. The main document, a short unsigned opinion halting the recounts, is written by Kennedy. Two portions are particularly notable: Kennedy’s assertion that the ruling applies only to Bush, and not to future decisions; and that the Court had only reluctantly accepted the case. “That infuriated us,” one liberal clerk later recalls. “It was typical Kennedy bullsh_t, aggrandizing the power of the Court while ostensibly wringing his hands about it.” Rehnquist, Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas join the decision, though Scalia is unimpressed with Kennedy’s writing and reasoning. Reportedly, he later calls it a “piece of sh_t,” though he will deny making the characterization.
Lack of Consensus - The lack of consensus between the conservative justices is relatively minor. Among the four liberal justices, though, it is quite pronounced—though all four wish not to end the recounts, only Stevens has a strong position and has stayed with it throughout the process. Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer were far less certain of their opposition, and resultingly, their dissents, unlike the impassioned Stevens dissent, are relatively pallid. Some of the liberal clerks say that the four’s lack of consensus helped the solid conservative majority stay solid: “They gave just enough cover to the five justices and their defenders in the press and academia so that it was impossible to rile up the American people about these five conservative ideologues stealing the election.”
Final Loss - Gore, reading the opinion, finally realizes that he and his campaign never had a chance with the five conservative justices, though they had hoped that either O’Connor or Kennedy would join the four liberals (see (November 29, 2000)). He congratulates his legal team, led by David Boies, and commends it for making it so difficult for the Court to justify its decision. Some reports will circulate that Souter is depressed over the decision, with Newsweek reporting that he later tells a group of Russian judges that the decision was “the most outrageous, indefensible thing” the Court had ever done. He also reportedly says that had he had “one more day,” he could have convinced Kennedy to turn. However, Souter will deny the reports, and those who know him will say that such comments would be out of character for him. For her part, O’Connor will express surprise that anyone could be angry over the decision. As for Scalia, some Court observers believe that his open partisanship during the process will cost him any chance he may have had to be named chief justice. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The Supreme Court rules in the case of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. The case addresses limitations on so-called “soft money,” or contributions to a political party not designated specifically for supporting a single candidate, that were imposed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), often known as the McCain-Feingold law after its two Senate sponsors (see March 27, 2002). A three-judge panel has already struck down some of McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on soft-money donations, a ruling that was stayed until the Court could weigh in. Generally, the Court rules that the “soft money” ban does not exceed Congress’s authority to regulate elections, and does not violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause. The ruling is a 5-4 split, with the majority opinion written by liberal Justice John Paul Stevens and his conservative colleague Sandra Day O’Connor. The opinion finds that the “minimal” restrictions on free speech are outweighed by the government’s interest in preventing “both the actual corruption threatened by large financial contributions and… the appearance of corruption” that might result from those contributions. “Money, like water, will always find an outlet,” the justices write, and the government must take steps to prevent corporate donors from finding ways to subvert the contribution limits. The majority is joined by liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, and the four other conservatives on the court—Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—dissent. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003; Oyez (.org) 2011) The case represents the consolidation of 11 separate lawsuits brought by members of Congress, political parties, unions, and advocacy groups; it is named for Senator Mitch McConnell, who sued the FEC on March 27, 2002, the same day the bill was signed into law. Due to the legal controversy expected to be generated by the law and the need to settle it prior to the next federal election, a provision was included in the BCRA that provided for the case to be heard first by a special three-judge panel and then appealed directly to the Supreme Court. This District of Columbia district court panel, comprised of two district court judges and one circuit court judge, was inundated with numerous amicus briefs, almost 1,700 pages of related briefs, and over 100,000 pages of witness testimony. The panel upheld the BCRA’s near-absolute ban on the usage of soft money in federal elections, and the Supreme Court agrees with that finding. However, the Court reverses some of the BCRA’s limitations on the usage of soft money for “generic party activities” such as voter registration and voter identification. The district court overturned the BCRA’s primary definition of “noncandidate expenditures,” but upheld the “backup” definition as provided by the law. Both courts allow the restrictions on corporate and union donations to stand, as well as the exception for nonprofit corporations. The Court upholds much of the BCRA’s provisions on disclosure and coordinated expenditures. The lower court rejected the so-called “millionaire provisions,” a rejection the Supreme Court upholds. A provision banning contributions by minors was overturned by the lower court, and the Court concurs. The lower court found the provision requiring broadcasters to collect and disclose records of broadcast time purchased for political activities unconstitutional, but the Court disagrees and reinstates the requirement. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003) McConnell had asked lawyer James Bopp Jr., a veteran of anti-campaign finance lawsuits and the head of McConnell’s James Madison Center for Free Speech, to take part in the legal efforts of the McConnell case. However, before the case appeared before the Supreme Court, McConnell dropped Bopp from the legal team due to a dispute over tactics. (Kirkpatrick 1/25/2010) The 2010 Citizens United decision will partially overturn McConnell (see January 21, 2010).
The Supreme Court rules in the case of Cheney v. US District Court for the District of Columbia (03-0475), in which two organizations, Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, are attempting to force the White House to reveal information about the secret deliberations of Vice President Cheney’s energy task force (see April 27, 2004). Neither side gets what it asks for in the 7-2 ruling, as the Court sends the case back to the US Court of Appeals for further adjudication, with an order for that court to take a second look at its ruling that Cheney must allow a judge to review the task force documents (see August 2, 2002). Five justices—Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and John Paul Stevens—vote to send the case back to the appeals court. Two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, vote to send the case all the way back to the original trial court, concurring with the majority. The Court’s two most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, vote to resolve the matter entirely in Cheney’s favor. Judge Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, instructs the appeals court—and all other courts who might subsequently hear such a case—to use a legal standard far more aligned with the executive branch’s claim of immunity from disclosure. Courts must afford “presidential confidentiality the greatest protection consistent with the fair administration of justice,” Kennedy writes, to protect the executive branch from being sued. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will later write that the Court may have avoided making a firm ruling because it did not want to wrangle with the issue of separation of powers, and the privilege of executive branch secrecy, in an election year. While most media and court observers call the decision a “punt” of little import, at least one, former Justice Department official Shannen Coffin, sees it differently. In a column for the National Review, Coffin celebrates the ruling, writing that due to “the vice president’s resolute assertion that he and the president should have the right to receive in confidence the advice necessary to the performance of their duties,” the White House has won a “major victory” in expanding its power to keep its procedures secret, regardless of the appeals court’s eventual ruling (see May 10, 2005). (Coffin 6/25/2004; Dean 7/2/2004; Savage 2007, pp. 167-168) The appeals court will agree with Thomas and Scalia, and rule in Cheney’s favor (see May 10, 2005).
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. (Bazelon 10/31/2005)
The Supreme Court upholds most of Texas’s far-reaching redistricting plan as engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004). The case is League of United Latin American Citizens et al v. Perry et al. The Court rejects one element of the plan, saying that some of the new boundaries fail to protect minority voting rights. Some district boundaries will need to be redrawn, particularly one “oddly shaped” district, District 23, in the Associated Press’s description, that saw the shift of 100,000 Hispanics out of a district represented by a Republican incumbent and into the unusually crafted district. Critics called District 23 the result of illegal gerrymandering, and said it violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989). Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion, says that under the plan, Hispanics have no chance to elect a candidate of their choosing. Democrats and minority groups have accused Republicans of unconstitutionally redrawing Texas’s electoral districts to ensure that the state’s legislature is controlled by Republicans. In the 2004 elections, the first with the new districts, Republicans took control of Texas’s legislature and four Democratic incumbents lost their seats. The Court upholds the contention that states can redraw district maps when they choose, not just once a decade as claimed by Texas Democrats. In essence, this means that any time a political party takes power in a state legislature, it can redraw maps to suit its purposes. The Constitution mandates the redrawing of state congressional district boundaries once a decade to account for population shifts; the Court says such redrawings can be more frequent if desired. The 2003-2004 redrawing of the Texas district map cost DeLay his position; he has resigned from Congress in the face of money laundering charges in relation to his fundraising activities for legislative candidates. While two other states, Colorado and Georgia, have undertaken similar redistricting efforts, law professor Richard Hasen says he does not believe many more states will move in the same direction. “Some people are predicting a rash of mid-decade redistricting. I am skeptical,” he says. “It would be seen as a power grab in a lot of places.” The 5-4 Court majority is not along ideological lines. While Kennedy, who usually joins the other conservatives, writes the majority opinion, the four liberals of the Court—Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter—write their own concurrences in conjunction with his opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts dissents, and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas join his dissent. Justice Antonin Scalia writes his own dissent. (Associated Press 6/28/2006; FindLaw 6/28/2006; Oyez (.org) 2012)
In the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case, the Supreme Court rules 5-3 to strike down the Bush administration’s plans to try Guantanamo detainees before military commissions. Ruling in favor of detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan (see November 8, 2004), the Court rules that the commissions are unauthorized by federal statutes and violate international law. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens says, “The executive is bound to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction.” The opinion throws out each of the administration’s arguments in favor of the commissions, including its assertion that Congress had stripped the Supreme Court of the jurisdiction to decide the case. One of the major flaws in the commissions, the Court rules, is that President Bush unilaterally established them without the authorization of Congress. (Greenhouse 6/30/2006) During the oral arguments three months before, Hamdan’s lawyer, Neal Katyal, told the Court: “The whole point of this [proceeding] is to say we’re challenging the lawfulness of the tribunal [the military commissions] itself. This isn’t a challenge to some decision that a court makes. This is a challenge to the court itself, and that’s why it’s different than the ordinary criminal context that you’re positing.” (Savage 2007, pp. 274-275)
Major Defeat for Bush Administration - Civil libertarian and human rights organizations consider the ruling a shattering defeat for the administration, particularly in its assertions of expansive, unfettered presidential authority. Bush says in light of the decision, he will work with Congress to “find a way forward” to implement the commissions. “The ruling destroys one of the key pillars of the Guantanamo system,” says Gerald Staberock, a director of the International Commission of Jurists. “Guantanamo was built on the idea that prisoners there have limited rights. There is no longer that legal black hole.” The ruling also says that prisoners held as “enemy combatants” must be afforded rights under the Geneva Conventions, specifically those requiring humane treatment for detainees and the right to free and open trials in the US legal system. While some form of military trials may be permissible, the ruling states that defendants must be given basic rights such as the ability to attend the trial and the right to see and challenge evidence submitted by the prosecution. Stevens writes that the historical origin of military commissions was in their use as a “tribunal of necessity” under wartime conditions. “Exigency lent the commission its legitimacy, but did not further justify the wholesale jettisoning of procedural protections.” (Greenhouse 6/30/2006) In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write, “Five justices on the Supreme Court said Bush had broken the law.” (Savage 2007, pp. 275)
Hardline Conservative Justices Dissent - Stevens is joined by Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Anthony Kennedy issues a concurring opinion. Dissenting are Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Thomas, in a dissent signed by Scalia and Alito, calls the decision “untenable” and “dangerous.” Chief Justice John Roberts recused himself from the case because of his participation in a federal appeals court that ruled in favor of the administration (see November 8, 2004).
Not Charged for Three Years - Hamdan is a Guantanamo detainee from Yemen, captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and taken to Guantanamo in June 2002. He is accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, in his function as driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. He was not charged with a crime—conspiracy—until mid-2004. (Greenhouse 6/30/2006)
The former lead prosecutor for terrorism tribunals at Guantanamo, Colonel Morris Davis, tells reporters that senior officials at the Pentagon pushed for convictions of high-profile detainees before the November 2008 presidential elections, placing politics ahead of duty. Davis says that the pressure from the Pentagon played a part in his decision to resign (see October 4, 2007). Davis says senior Defense Department officials discussed the “strategic political value” of putting some prominent detainees on trial in a September 2006 meeting (see September 29, 2006). Davis also says he objected to newly appointed senior officials’ insistence on using classified evidence in closed sessions of court, and to the military commissions being put under Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes (see October 4, 2007).
'Less than Full, Fair and Open' - Davis had serious concerns about the use of classified evidence, due to worries it could be seen to be tainting trials. Davis says that since Brigadier General Thomas Hartmann’s arrival as legal adviser to the convening authority in the summer of 2007, Hartmann has attempted to speed up trials that will engage media attention and show the public that the process works (see July 2007). “He said, the way we were going to validate the system was by getting convictions and good sentences,” Davis says. “I felt I was being pressured to do something less than full, fair and open.” (White 10/20/2007) Pentagon regulations require the legal adviser to be an impartial administration and not an arm of the prosecution.
'Political Commission' - Law professor Marc Falkoff, who represents some of the Guantanamo detainees, will observe that the interference Davis cites “is a patent violation of Rule 104 of the Manual for Military Commissions and Section 949b of the Military Commissions Act, both of which make it unlawful to ‘attempt to coerce or, by any unauthorized means, influence… the exercise of professional judgment by trial counsel or defense counsel.’” Falkoff notes that in the Supreme Court’s Hamdan verdict (see June 30, 2006), Justice Anthony Kennedy specifically disapproved of the first military commissions because they lacked “the safeguards that are important to the fairness of the proceedings and the independence of the court.” Davis says, “[A]s things stand right now, I think it’s a disgrace to call it a military commission—it’s a political commission.” (Falkoff 11/2/2007)
The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that foreign terror suspects held without charge at Guantanamo Bay have the Constitutional right to challenge their detention in US civilian courts. The Court splits along ideological lines, with the more liberal and moderate members supporting the finding, and the more conservative members opposing it. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a centrist, writes the ruling. He writes, “The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” The ruling specifically strikes down the portion of the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006) that denies detainees their habeas corpus rights to file petitions. (Sherman 6/12/2008; Associated Press 6/12/2008) The case is Boumediene v. Bush, and was filed in the Supreme Court in March 2007 on behalf of Lakhdar Boumediene, a Bosnian citizen held in the Guantanamo camp since 2002 (see January 18, 2002). It was combined with a similar case, Al Odah v United States (see October 20, 2004). (Oyez (.org) 6/2007; Shawl 6/29/2007)
'Stinging Rebuke' for Bush Administration - The ruling is considered a serious setback for the Bush administration (a “stinging rebuke,” in the words of the Associated Press), which insists that terror suspects detained at Guantanamo and elsewhere have no rights in the US judicial system. It is unclear whether the ruling will lead to prompt hearings for detainees (Associated Press 6/12/2008; Sherman 6/12/2008) ; law professor James Cohen, who represents two detainees, says, “Nothing is going to happen between June 12 and January 20,” when the next president takes office. Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr says the decision will not affact war crimes trials already in the works: “Military commission trials will therefore continue to go forward.”
Scalia: Ruling Will 'Cause More Americans to Be Killed' - President Bush says he disagrees with the ruling, and says he may seek new legislation to keep detainees under lock and key. Justice Antonin Scalia, the leader of the Court’s ideological right wing, agrees; in a “blistering” dissent, he writes that the decision “will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.” In his own dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts argues that the ruling strikes down “the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants.” Joining Scalia and Roberts in the minority are Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Voting in the majority are Kennedy and Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens.
Military Tribunals 'Doomed,' Says Navy Lawyer - Former Navy lawyer Charles Swift, who argued a similar case before the Supreme Court in Hamdan v Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), says he believes the ruling removes any legal basis for keeping Guantanamo open, and says that military tribunals are “doomed.” The entire rationale for Guantanamo and the tribunals, Swift says, is the idea that “constitutional protections wouldn’t apply.” But now, “The court said the Constitution applies. They’re in big trouble.” Democrats and many human rights organizations hail the ruling as affirming the US’s commitment to the rule of law; some Republican lawmakers say the ruling puts foreign terrorists’ rights over the safety of the American people. Vincent Warren, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says: “The Supreme Court has finally brought an end to one of our nation’s most egregious injustices. By granting the writ of habeas corpus, the Supreme Court recognizes a rule of law established hundreds of years ago and essential to American jurisprudence since our nation’s founding.” (Associated Press 6/12/2008)
By a 5-4 vote, the US Supreme Court narrows the provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and July 27, 2006), ruling in Bartlett v. Strickland that the VRA does not require state governments to draw electoral districts favorable to minority candidates in places where minorities make up less than half the population. The Court rules that race must be considered only in drawing boundaries where a “geographically compact group of minority voters” make up at least 50 percent of a single-member district. Law professor Richard Hasen says that because of the Court’s ruling, 50 percent is now a “magic number.” The decision makes it more difficult for minorities to challenge redistricting efforts that they believe may dilute voting rights after the upcoming 2010 census. Writing for the plurality opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes: “There is an underlying principle of fundamental importance: We must be most cautious before interpreting a statute to require courts to make inquiries based on racial classifications and race-based predictions.” Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito join with Kennedy’s opinion; Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas file a concurring opinion that claims no minorities should ever be able to go to court with complaints about minority vote dilution. The four moderate/liberal justices on the Court dissent. Hasen says that Kennedy’s opinion makes it likely that he will join the Court’s right wing to further limit the VRA in upcoming cases: Hasen says Kennedy seems open to interpreting the VRA “in ever stingier ways.” However, Kennedy also writes: “Racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions.” The case hinges on a decision by the North Carolina legislature to enhance minority representation by creating a voting district that crosses county lines; the Court strikes down the district and rejects arguments that the district is needed for North Carolina to comply with the VRA. Instead, Kennedy writes, only districts where minorities made up more than 50 percent are protected under the VRA. Justice David Souter, writing the four-justice dissent, says that such “crossover districts” are sometimes needed to fulfill the goals of the VRA, and that the Court’s finding will “force the states to perpetuate racially concentrated districts, the quintessential manifestations of race consciousness in American politics.” It will require states “to pack black voters” into districts in which minorities make up the majority, Souter writes, “contracting the number of districts where racial minorities are having success in transcending racial divisions.” (Liptak 3/9/2009; Barnes 3/10/2009)
The US Supreme Court hears the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refused to let the conservative lobbying organization Citizens United (CU) air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 presidential primary season (see January 10-16, 2008). The FEC ruled that H:TM, as some have shortened the name, was not a film, but a 90-minute campaign ad with no other purpose than to smear and attack Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as being unfit to hold office. A panel of appeals judges agreed with the FEC’s ruling, which found the film was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” As a campaign ad, the film’s airing on national network television came under campaign finance laws, particularly since the film was financed by corporate political donations. CU was allowed to air the film in theaters and sell it in DVD and other formats, but CU wanted to pay $1.2 million to have the movie aired on broadcast cable channels and video-on-demand (pay per view) services, and to advertise its broadcast. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) hired former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Bossie denies that he chose Olson because of their shared loathing of the Clintons—they worked together to foment the “Arkansas Project,” a Clinton smear effort that resulted in Congress unsuccessfully impeaching President Clinton—but because Olson gave “us the best chance to win.” Bossie dedicated the Clinton film to Barbara Olson, Olson’s late wife, who died in the 9/11 attacks (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) “I just don’t see how the Federal Election Commission has the authority to use campaign-finance rules to regulate advertising that is not related to campaigns,” Bossie told reporters last year. (Richey 2/1/2008)
Uphold or Cut Back McCain-Feingold? - Observers, unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, believe the case gives the Court the opportunity to either uphold or cut back the body of law stemming from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or McCain-Feingold) campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002), which limits the ability of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising before elections. CU is arguing that the BCRA is unconstitutional, having argued before a previous court that the the BCRA law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film. In its brief to the Court, CU denies the film is any sort of “electioneering,” claiming: “Citizens United’s documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect… The government’s position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions—or articulate facts—pertinent to a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.” The Justice Department, siding with the FEC, calls the film an “unmistakable” political appeal, stating, “Every element of the film, including the narration, the visual images and audio track, and the selection of clips, advances the clear message that Senator Clinton lacked both the integrity and the qualifications to be president of the United States.” The film is closer to a political “infomercial” than a legitimate documentary, the Justice Department argues. The film’s “unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton’s character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States,” according to a Justice Department lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, who filed a brief on behalf of the FEC. The Justice Department wants the Court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads, while Olson and CU want the Court to strike down the requirements. Olson says financial backers of films such as H:TM may be reluctant to back a film if their support becomes publicly known. Kneedler, however, writes that such disclosure is in the public interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is joining CU in its court fight, stating in a brief, “By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies.” Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which supports the BCRA, disagrees with RCFP’s stance, saying, “The idea that [the law] threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch.” (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) The RCFP has said that the movie “does not differ, in any relevant respect, from the critiques of presidential candidates produced throughout the entirety of American history.” And a lawyer with the RCFP, Gregg P. Leslie, asked, “Who is the FEC to decide what is news and what kind of format news is properly presented in?” (Liptak 3/5/2009)
Filled with False Information - The movie was relentlessly panned by critics, who found much of its “information” either misrepresentative of Clinton or outright false. CU made several other films along with the Clinton documentary, which included attacks on filmmaker Michael Moore, the American Civil Liberties Union, illegal immigrants, and Clinton’s fellow presidential contender Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009)
Arguments Presented - Olson and his opponent, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, present arguments in the case to the assembled Court. Traditionally, lawyers with the Solicitor General (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin later 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 clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and is a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative justice with a penchant for asking tough questions that often hide their true intentions behind carefully neutral wording, is interested in seeing how far he can push Stewart’s argument. Does the BCRA apply only to television commercials, he asks, or might it regulate other means of communication during a federal campaign? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?” Stewart says that the BCRA indeed imposes such restrictions, stating, “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.” Could the government regulate the content of a book? Alito asks. “That’s pretty incredible. You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?” Stewart, who tardily realizes where Alito was going, attempts to recover. “I’m not saying it could be banned,” he responds. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a “swing” justice in some areas but a reliable conservative vote in campaign-spending cases, interrupts Stewart. “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book,” Kennedy says. “Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the 60- and 30-day periods?” Stewart gives what Toobin later calls “a reluctant, qualified yes.” At this point, Roberts speaks up. According to Toobin, Roberts intends to paint Stewart into something of a corner. “If it has one name, one use of the candidate’s name, it would be covered, correct?” Roberts asks. Stewart responds, “That’s correct.” Roberts then asks, “If it’s a 500-page book, and at the end it says, ‘And so vote for X,’ the government could ban that?” Stewart responds, “Well, if it says ‘vote for X,’ it would be express advocacy and it would be covered by the preexisting Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980) provisions.” Toobin later writes that with their “artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts ha[ve] turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship.” Unwittingly, Stewart has argued that the government has the right to censor books because of a single line. Toobin later writes that Stewart is incorrect, that the government could not ban or censor books because of McCain-Feingold. The law applies to television advertisements, and stems from, as Toobin will write, “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Legal scholars and pundits will later argue about Stewart’s answers to the three justices’ questions, but, as Toobin will later write, “the damage to the government’s case had been profound.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Behind the Scenes - Unbeknownst to the lawyers and the media, the Court initially renders a 5-4 verdict in favor of CU, and strikes down decades of campaign finance law, before withdrawing its verdict and agreeing to hear rearguments in the fall (see June 29, 2009). Toobin will write that the entire case is orchestrated behind the scenes, by Roberts and his fellow majority conservatives. Toobin will write of “a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case” that “reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court.” Toobin will write that although the five conservatives are involved in broadening the scope of the case, and Kennedy actually writes the majority decision, “the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.” The initial vote on the case is 5-4, with the five conservative justices—Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—taking the majority.
Expansive Concurrence Becomes the Majority Opinion - At the outset, the case is decided on the basis of Olson’s narrow arguments, regarding the issue of a documentary being made available on demand by a nonprofit organization (CU). Roberts takes the majority opinion onto himself. The four liberals in the minority are confident Roberts’s opinion would be as narrow as Olson’s arguments. Roberts’s draft opinion is indeed that narrow. Kennedy writes a concurrence opining that the Court should go further and overturn McCain-Feingold, the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), and end the ban on corporate donations to campaigns (see 1907). When the draft opinions circulates, the other three conservatives begin rallying towards Kennedy’s more expansive concurrence. Roberts then withdraws his draft and lets Kennedy write the majority opinion in line with his concurrence. Toobin later writes: “The new majority opinion transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law in a case where the lawyer had not even raised those issues. Roberts’s approach to Citizens United conflicted with the position he had taken earlier in the term.” During arguments in a different case, Roberts had “berated at length” a lawyer “for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the petition. Now Roberts was doing nearly the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.”
Dissent - The senior Justice in the minority, John Paul Stevens, initially assigns the main dissent to Justice David Souter. Souter, who is in the process of retiring from the Court, writes a stinging dissent that documents some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the case, including an accusation that Roberts violated the Court’s procedures to get the outcome he wanted. Toobin will call Souter’s planned dissent “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court” that Roberts feels “could damage the Court’s credibility.” Roberts offers a compromise: Souter will withdraw his dissent if the Court schedules a reargument of the case in the fall of 2009 (see June 29, 2009). The second argument would feature different “Questions Presented,” and the stakes of the case would be far clearer. The four minority justices find themselves in something of a conundrum. They feel that to offer the Kennedy opinion as it stands would be to “sandbag” them and the entire case, while a reargument would at least present the issues that the opinion was written to reflect. And there is already a 5-4 majority in favor of Kennedy’s expansive opinion. The liberals, with little hope of actually winning the case, agree to the reargument. The June 29, 2009 announcement will inform the parties that the Court is considering overturning two key decisions regarding campaign finance restrictions, including a decision rendered by the Roberts court (see March 27, 1990 and December 10, 2003) and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Court observers will understand that the Court is not in the habit of publicly asking whether a previous Court decision should be overruled unless a majority is already prepared to do just that. Toobin will call Roberts and his four colleagues “impatient” to make the decision, in part because an early decision would allow the ruling to impact the 2010 midterm elections. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Created to Give Courts Shot at McCain-Feingold - Critics, as yet unaware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, will later say 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 will say: “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.” Bossie himself will later confirm that contention, saying: “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.” (Rucker 1/22/2010) CU’s original lawyer on the case, James Bopp, will later verify that the case was brought specifically to give the Court a chance to cut back or overturn campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010). The Court will indeed overturn McCain-Feingold in the CU decision (see January 21, 2010).
In an 8-1 decision, the US Supreme Court refuses to rule against one of the main components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989). Many conservatives had seen the case as an opportunity for the Court conservatives to either drastically narrow or entirely gut the VRA, and were hopeful of that outcome in light of a recent Court decision narrowing the VRA’s effect on districting (see March 9, 2009). Instead, the Court chooses not to rule on the central tenet of the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, which is that the VRA is largely unconstitutional. The case was brought by a Texas utility district that claimed in arguments that the VRA was unconstitutional and unnecessary in a time when the nation has elected a black president. The plaintiff argued that districts and other governmental entities should be allowed to “bail out” from being covered by the VRA. (Liptak 6/22/2009; Cave 6/22/2009) Many observers were concerned that the conservative wing of the Court would use the case to overturn large portions of the VRA, especially in earlier questioning, when Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio. The sovereignty of Alabama is less than the sovereign dignity of Michigan. And the governments in one are to be trusted less than the governments in the other.… No one questions the validity, the urgency, the essentiality of the Voting Rights Act. The question is whether or not it should be continued with this differentiation between the states. And that is for Congress to show.” (Liptak 4/29/2009) Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, says that the Court should avoid tackling large constitutional questions when it can. “We are now a very different nation” than the one that first passed the Voting Rights Act, he writes. “Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.” Roberts’s opinion says that “a broader reading” of the VRA’s bailout provision should be implemented. Moreover, he writes, the federal oversight of states and areas with a history of discrimination may have served its purpose and may need to be phased out, a position supported by the lone dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas, who writes that the oversight provision of Section 5 of the VRA should be overturned entirely. It is possible that others will take advantage of the Court’s hesitation to file other “opt out” or “bailout” challenges to the VRA. Some legal experts found the basis of the case to be lacking. Ellen Katz, a law professor at the University of Michigan, calls the Court’s ruling “improbable,” and Richard Hasen of Loyola Law School says “virtually no lawyer” sees the Court’s interpretation as reasonable. NAACP lawyer Debo P. Adegbile says that regardless of questions surrounding the Court’s verdict, the ruling is one to celebrate: “This case was brought to tear the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, and today that effort failed.” (Liptak 6/22/2009)
The second round of arguments in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, and June 29, 2009) is heard by the US Supreme Court. The first round of arguments, which unexpectedly focused on an unplanned examination of government censorship, ended in a 5-4 split, with the majority of conservative justices readying a decision to essentially gut the entire body of federal campaign finance law in the name of the First Amendment (see March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), but an angry dissent by Justice David Souter that accused Chief Justice John Roberts of failing to follow the procedures of the Court in rendering the opinion prompted Roberts to temporarily withdraw the opinion and offer a rare second argument (see May 14, 2012). Newly appointed Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues her first case before the Court. Citizens United, the plaintiff, is represented by former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, a veteran of Court arguments, quickly discerns from the new round of “Questions Presented” that the Court is prepared to not only find in the plaintiff’s favor, but to use the case to render a broad verdict against campaign finance law as a whole. Olson argues cautiously, not wanting to extend the case farther than the Court may desire. The four minority liberal justices, knowing the case is lost, try their best in their questioning to raise awareness in the public once news reports of the arguments are made public. One of those justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, asks: “Mr. Olson, are you taking the position that there is no difference” between the First Amendment rights of a corporation and those of an individual? “A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights. So is there any distinction that Congress could draw between corporations and natural human beings for purposes of campaign finance?” Olson replies, “What the Court has said in the First Amendment context… over and over again is that corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment” (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). Ginsburg follows up by asking, “Would that include today’s mega-corporations, where many of the investors may be foreign individuals or entities?” Olson replies, “The Court in the past has made no distinction based upon the nature of the entity that might own a share of a corporation.” Kagan then takes her turn, and begins: “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, I have three very quick points to make about the government position. The first is that this issue has a long history. For over a hundred years, Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections, and this Court has never questioned that judgment.” She begins to make her second point before Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the conservative majority, interrupts her. In 2012, author and reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write that Kagan almost certainly knows hers is a legal “suicide mission,” and can only hope that her arguments may sway the Court to narrow its decision and leave some of the existing body of campaign finance law intact. She tells Roberts later in the questioning period, “Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses, if it has to lose, the answer is yes.” Justice John Paul Stevens, the most senior of the liberal minority, attempts to assist Kagan in making her argument, suggesting that the Court should content itself with a narrow ruling, perhaps creating an exception in the McCain-Feingold law (see March 27, 2002) for the plaintiff’s documentary (see January 10-16, 2008) or for “ads that are financed exclusively by individuals even though they are sponsored by a corporation.” Kagan agrees with Stevens’s proposal. Stevens then says: “Nobody has explained why that wouldn’t be a proper solution, not nearly as drastic. Why is that not the wisest narrow solution of the problem before us?” Kagan, with help from Ginsburg, undoes some of the damage done by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart during the first argument, where he inadvertently gave the conservative justices the “censorship” argument by which they could justify a broader verdict. Ginsburg asks: “May I ask you one question that was highlighted in the prior argument, and that was if Congress could say no TV and radio ads, could it also say no newspaper ads, no campaign biographies? Last time, the answer was yes, Congress could, but it didn’t. Is that still the government’s answer?” Kagan replies: “The government’s answer has changed, Justice Ginsburg. We took the Court’s own reaction to some of those other hypotheticals very seriously. We went back, we considered the matter carefully.” Unlike Stewart, Kagan specifically says that the government cannot ban books. But the censorship argument remains. After the arguments, the justices render the same verdict: a 5-4 split favoring Citizens United. Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas vote in the majority, while Ginsburg, Stevens, and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor vote in the minority. The second round of questioning, with its much broader scope, gives Roberts and his conservative colleagues the justification they need to render a broad verdict that would gut existing campaign finance law (see January 21, 2010). (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller posts a scathing criticism of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision (see January 21, 2010) on the Foundation’s blog. Miller writes that the implications of the decision “are breathtaking—opening the floodgates of political money such as we have never seen before. If you thought Congress was ‘for sale’ to the highest bidder, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Nothing less than a fundamental rethinking of our campaign finance laws is demanded as a result of today’s decision.” Miller writes that transparency in donations and funding is not “a panacea for the horrific consequences of today’s decision, it is critically important as the shredded system is rebuilt. Today’s decision underscores the necessity of creating comprehensive real-time disclosure for all election spending—across the board—from when and how often candidates, individuals, and PACs report their contributions and expenditures to those involved in independent expenditures, issue ads, or direct election advocacy.” Miller focuses on the portion of the majority opinion that claimed Internet-based disclosure is sufficient to keep the public informed about campaign finance practices. The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.… This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.… [M]odern technology makes disclosures rapid and informative.… A campaign finance system that pairs corporate independent expenditures with effective disclosure has not existed before today.” Miller agrees, but notes that “the disclosure system [Kennedy] describe[s] doesn’t yet exist. The current disclosure system is insufficiently ‘rapid and informative’ and does not make effective use of modern technology.” Miller predicts a “tidal wave of corporate campaign expenditures” that will not be exposed or held accountable by the current disclosure system. “The quarterly reporting system now in place is outdated and ineffective—ridiculous, in a word.” Miller concludes: “[T]his decision should trigger momentum toward ensuring that all election-related information is available online in real-time. Disclosure remains a crucial antiseptic to the corrupting influence of money in politics. We should ensure our system is as transparent as possible.” (Ellen Miller 1/21/2010)
Loyola Law School Professor Richard Hasen writes that the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010) is a “bad day for American democracy.” The Court as headed by Chief Justice John Roberts is a conservative activist court, Hasen writes, determined to recraft “constitutional law in its image.” The Citizens United ruling opens up the American political system “to a money free-for-all.” Hasen originally thought the Court would make a narrow ruling in the Citizens United case, perhaps finding that the campaign finance law often referred to as McCain-Feingold (see March 27, 2002) does not apply to video-on-demand broadcasts. “That would be in line with some of the past decisions of the Roberts Court, when it had preferred to chip away at existing precedent rather than dramatically move the law rightward.” But during questioning, it became clear that the conservatives on the Court were ready to dismantle McCain-Feingold as opposed to merely chipping away at it. The Court struck down limitations on corporate spending entirely (see March 27, 1990) and much of the legal limitations on so-called “soft money” campaign funding (see December 10, 2003). Hasen says that the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy equates funding limitations with censorship. Hasen writes: “There are many responses to Justice Kennedy’s reasoning. He wrongly assumes that corporations or unions can throw money at public officials without corrupting them. Could a candidate for judicial office, for example, be swayed to rule in favor of a contributor who donated $3 million to an independent campaign to get the candidate elected to the State Supreme Court? Justice Kennedy himself thought so in [a previous case]. And yet he runs away from that decision in today’s ruling. Justice Kennedy acknowledges that with the ‘soft money’ limits on political parties still in place, third-party groups (which tend to run more negative and irresponsible ads) will increase in strength relative to political parties. And that possibility raises the real chance Congress will repeal the ‘soft money’ limits, thereby increasing the risks of quid pro quo corruption.” Hasen believes that Kennedy is enshrining a fundamental principle of financial inequality—that wealthy individuals and corporations now have the legal right to unduly influence elections via their money. Money, Hasen writes, should not be equated with speech, as Kennedy has found. Instead of doing what the Court traditionally does, Hasen writes, and taking a narrow view of a constitutional issue as it has in a recent case (see June 22, 2009)—the time-honored principle of “constitutional avoidance”—this time the Court has gone to the extreme to transform the constitutional interpretation of electoral procedures. “[T]he Court went out of its way to overturn its own precedent, in violation of its usual rule of stare decisis, which calls for respecting past rulings for the good of reliable law-making. And it did so violating its usual rule, which it cited even yesterday, that it does not generally reach issues not raised in the initial petition to the Court. In short, the Court did not have to do what it did today.… This is a Court that has taken a giant leap toward deregulation of the electoral process.” (Hasen 1/21/2010)
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 ; Liptak 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.” (Savage 1/21/2010; OMB Watch 1/27/2010; Richey and Feldmann 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 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 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. (Toobin 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 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010; Sherman 1/21/2010; Richey and Feldmann 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.” (Rucker 1/22/2010)
New York Times legal correspondent Adam Liptak observes what he calls a large weakness in the position that the Supreme Court should not have granted First Amendment rights to corporations in its 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). Liptak notes that Justice Anthony Kennedy cited more than 20 precedents affirming his argument that corporations are people under the First Amendment’s free-speech provision, and Justice John Paul Stevens recognized that body of precedents in his dissent. Liptak notes that regardless of the precedent, the provision still can be wrong. But, he notes, the weakness in the argument centers around the status of the news media as an amalgamation of “corporate persons,” writing, “If corporations have no First Amendment rights, what about newspapers and other news organizations, almost all of which are organized as corporations?” There is a general acceptance that “the press is different,” he notes, writing: “The First Amendment, after all, protects ‘the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ Since ‘the press’ is singled out for protection, the argument goes, media corporations enjoy First Amendment rights while other corporations do not.” Liptak calls this a weak argument. There is little evidence to show that the Founders intended “to single out a set of businesses for special protection” under the First Amendment, nor is there a lot of support for the Court’s current stance that the institutional press has rights that other speakers, specifically corporations, do not have. Moreover, he asks, who exactly is the press? Is it a corporate media firm or a person with a Twitter account? In initial arguments in the Citizens United case (see June 29, 2009), government lawyer Malcolm L. Stewart argued that Congress has the power to regulate “corporate speech” about political candidates, even going so far as to prohibit the publication of a book in the weeks before an election, an argument that did not sit well with most of the justices. (Liptak notes that in the second set of arguments, “[t]he government backed away from that position at the second argument, but not very far—see September 9, 2009). Stewart could have gone further in claiming “that media corporations, the institutional press, would have a greater First Amendment right,” as he said in his first argument, though he did not use that as his primary argument. Stevens seemed supportive of that argument in his dissent. Justice Antonin Scalia, in his concurrence, did not, writing: “It is passing strange to interpret the phrase ‘the freedom of speech, or of the press’ to mean, not everyone’s right to speak or publish, but rather everyone’s right to speak or the institutional press’s right to publish. No one thought that is what it meant.” Former Times columnist and Court reporter Anthony Lewis reached a similar conclusion in 2008, writing, “The amendment surely meant to cover both oral and written expression [rather than] a specially protected institution.” In the majority opinion, Kennedy wrote, “There is no precedent supporting laws that attempt to distinguish between corporations which are deemed to be exempt as media corporations and those which are not.” Law professor Eugene Volokh agreed, writing, “If ordinary business corporations lack First Amendment rights, so do those business corporations that we call media corporations.” Law professor Richard Hasen acknowledges that the correct treatment of media corporations in the issue of free speech and campaign finance is “among the most difficult questions for supporters of reasonable campaign finance reform.” Liptak concludes: “There are good arguments both ways about whether corporations ought to be covered by the First Amendment. But it is harder to say that some corporations have First Amendment rights and others do not.” (Liptak 2/7/2011)
The decision of the Montana Supreme Court to uphold Montana’s ban on corporate donations to political campaigns (see December 30, 2011 and After), which directly contradicts the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), is being appealed to the US Supreme Court. The plaintiffs, American Tradition Partnership (ATP) and the other two corporate entities that joined ATP in the original lawsuit, ask Justice Anthony Kennedy to issue a stay on the Montana high court verdict while the Supreme Court considers the appeal. In their application for a stay, the plaintiffs write: “The Montana Supreme Court held the ban constitutional despite the holding in [the Citizens United decision] that ‘[n]o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.’ Immediate relief is needed to prevent irreparable harm to the corporations’ First Amendment free-speech right. Montana’s primary elections are on June 5, making it vital that planning begin now for independent expenditures before the election.” The application also asks Kennedy to refer the matter to the Court, have it treated as a petition for review, and then summarily reverse the Montana Supreme Court. James Bopp, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, writes, “The lower court’s refusal to follow Citizens United is such an obvious, blatant disregard of its duty to follow this Court’s decisions that summary reversal is proper.” In a statement, Bopp adds: “Unequivocally, Citizens United means that corporate independent expenditure bans are invalid under the United States Constitution. The Montana Supreme Court has shirked its responsibility to follow that decisions and the United States Supreme Court should reverse their ruling.” The other two parties involved as plaintiffs are the Montana Shooting Sports Association and Champion Painting Inc. At least five justices vote to issue the stay, though an official decision to accept the case on appeal is still pending, and the Court has not spoken on the subject of summary reversal. Two justices who dissented from the Citizens United case, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, agree that the Montana Supreme Court’s decision should be reviewed, but in a statement attached to the stay order, add: “Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’ A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway. Because lower courts are bound to follow this Court’s decisions until they are withdrawn or modified, however, I vote to grant the stay.” The stay allows Montana corporations to donate without restriction to super PACs operated on behalf of electoral candidates. (Coyle 2/10/2012; Denniston 2/17/2012; US Supreme Court 2/17/2012 ) The US Supreme Court will strike down the Montana ruling (see June 25, 2012).
In an interview with reporter/pundit Sam Seder, former US Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) says that he feels Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is embarrassed by the “almost lawless decision” rendered by the Court in its 2010 Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010). That ruling allows corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns, and is widely credited with the enormous influx of corporate money in the 2012 presidential elections. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. Feingold says: “This is a guy who is usually a careful justice. He just started making these sweeping assertions about what corruption was, what companies do, like he was talking at a bar with somebody over a beer rather than anything that was a legal decision. It was really reckless. I am guess[ing] he might even be a little bit embarrassed at this point about what a sloppy opinion it was, and how it just asserted things that aren’t proven.” Feingold, who co-authored the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), says the current campaign finance system is nothing less than “legalized extortion.” He adds: “It’s not like corporate CEOs sit around their office and go, ‘You know, I’d like to throw some money around in the political process.’ It works the other way. The politicians call up and ask for the money.” (Dolan 5/7/2012)
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). (Toobin 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.” (Toobin 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).
Law professors Thomas Goldstein, the publisher of the well-regarded Supreme Court blog “SCOTUSBlog,” and Jonathan Adler, a contributor to the renowned “Volokh Conspiracy” legal blog, write of their reactions to the article published by Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker alleging that Chief Justice John Roberts managed the Citizens United case into becoming a vehicle for rewriting and gutting the nation’s campaign finance laws (see May 14, 2012). Goldstein describes himself as “naturally inclined towards that reading of the history” and an opponent of the Citizens United decision, but takes issue with some of Toobin’s claims. Adler is less inclined to accept Toobin’s interpretations.
Doubt that Roberts Orchestrated Decision - Both Goldstein and Adler write that Toobin’s facts do not lead to his conclusion that Roberts orchestrated the process to allow the Court to overturn the bulk of the nation’s campaign finance legal structure (see March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002 and December 10, 2003); Adler goes one step further and says Toobin’s article “contains plenty of subtle (and not-so-subtle) spin in service of Toobin’s broader narrative of an out-of-control conservative court.” Had Roberts orchestrated the outcome from the beginning, Goldstein writes, it does not follow that Roberts would have written an original opinion much more narrowly focused than the final, transformative opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy (see March 15, 2009). Adler echoes this conclusion. Adler also notes that even from the outset, none of the liberal Justices were willing to rule directly against the Citizens United claim, “in no small part because the statutory argument was so weak.” Goldstein does not make this claim. Goldstein also believes that at the outset, the Court’s five conservatives—Kennedy, Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—may not have been as solid in their support for Kennedy’s more sweeping opinion as Toobin claims.
Doubts about 'Censorship' Claim - Adler notes that Toobin’s interpretation of the “censorship” argument as stumbled into by the government’s lead legal counsel during the first argument is incorrect, saying that the government’s claim that books and magazines could be censored under a strict interpretation of the McCain-Feingold legislation is accurate. He acknowledges that during the second round of arguments, the government backed away from the claim, but not convincingly and not completely. Adler gives more credence to that legal argument than does either Toobin or Goldstein.
Doubts that Roberts Alone Decided to Reargue Case - Both authors claim that Toobin erred in claiming Roberts alone decided that the Citizens United case should be reargued (see June 29, 2009); Goldstein writes, “even if he did, that decision does not seem like an effort to decide Citizens United as broadly as possible as quickly as possible.” Goldstein says that Roberts’s decision to assign the final opinion to Kennedy was not as clever a tactical move as Toobin writes: “Kennedy had already written an opinion deciding the case on that basis that had the support of several members of the majority. It would have been fairly insulting for Roberts to take the assignment away.” He also notes that in June 2010, the Court refused to hear a lawsuit by the Republican National Committee (RNC) that would, if accepted, terminated Congressional restrictions on corporate donations to political parties. Only three of the five conservatives—Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas—voted to hear argument. “If the Chief Justice were actually leading the charge for revisiting campaign finance law, he presumably would not have voted to affirm,” Goldstein writes.
Some Agreement that Majority Erred - Goldstein agrees with Toobin that the conservative majority may have erred in deciding Citizens United on First Amendment grounds (Adler supports the decision), but he does not agree with Toobin’s choice to single Roberts out for special attention: “[T]hat is a criticism that is just as applicable to the entire majority, as opposed to an indication of maneuvering by him. It also ignores that the alternative may have been no clear holding whatsoever—with dueling members of the majority articulating inconsistent rationales that left the law in flux.” Adler disagrees entirely with Toobin’s characterization of the Citizens United case as “judicial activism,” a characterization that Goldstein does not entirely accept, either.
Speculation about Sources - Adler speculates on Toobin’s sources, musing that to have such detail on the decision-making process would almost certainly indicate that Toobin’s sources are sitting Justices, clerks for said Justices, or others inside the Court itself, and writes: “We don’t know the identities of Toobin’s sources, and some of his claims are difficult to check. His story may reflect how some justices or clerks saw the case, but there may well be another side, and we won’t know until such time as the relevant court documents are released. I also cannot help but wonder whether some of Toobin’s sources, such as former Supreme Court clerks, may have violated their own ethical obligations in disclosing portions of the Court’s internal deliberations. Even if Toobin’s sources were sitting or former [J]ustices, there is something unseemly about the selective disclosure of what went on inside the Court on such a recent case.”
Conclusions - Goldstein concludes by writing that in the future, with a liberal perhaps replacing Kennedy on the Court, if an opportunity occurs for the Court’s new liberal majority to overturn Citizens United in its entirety, “[w]ill progressives really contend that the new and more liberal majority should leave that decision standing? I don’t think so. They will want the Court to get the decision ‘right’.” Regardless of his criticisms, he writes, Toobin’s book is a “must read,” as is the article. Adler is more measured in his praise, writing: “In any event, the article is still worth reading—as I am sure Toobin’s book will be as well. Some portions will just go down better with a healthy dose of salt.” (Tom Goldstein 5/14/2012; Jonathan H. Adler 5/14/2012)
Ed Whelan of the conservative National Review is highly critical of a recent article by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin about the internal decision-making process behind the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010 and May 14, 2012). Elements of Toobin’s narrative have already been questioned by law professors Thomas Goldstein and Jonathan Adler (see May 14, 2012), though both professors are generally supportive of the article and recommend it for reading. In his first article, Whelan writes that the evidence “doesn’t support his thesis,” and promises a followup article that addresses “some of Toobin’s wild distortions about” the decision, including what he calls Toobin’s “baseless libel” against Chief Justice John Roberts, referencing Toobin’s implication that Roberts engineered the sweeping campaign finance reform of the decision in order to aid Republican candidates. Whelan interprets Toobin’s evidence to say that it shows Justice Anthony Kennedy, not Roberts, enlarged the scope of the Citizens United decision; however, Whelan believes neither interpretation. Some of Toobin’s interpretation of events hinges on a draft dissent penned by Justice David Souter that was withdrawn after Roberts agreed to let the case be re-argued (see June 29, 2009 and September 9, 2009). Whelan implies that he doubts the existence of such a dissent, an implication that cannot be disproven, as Souter sealed his Court records after his retirement (see May 14-16, 2012). If the dissent does exist, Whelan doubts that Toobin has read it. He concludes by casting aspersions on Toobin’s assertion that Roberts engineered the results of the decision “without leaving his own fingerprints.” Roberts cast the deciding vote in the 5-4 split, Whelan notes, and adds that Roberts did not entirely escape criticism for the ruling after it was issued. (Whelan 5/15/2012)
Part Two - The next day, Whelan publishes the second part of the article, and condemns Toobin for asserting that Roberts crafted the decision with the intention of helping Republican candidates in upcoming elections. He calls the assertion “scurrilous,” and says Toobin presents “not an iota of evidence” for the claim. Whelan then writes that no evidence exists to show that the decision has helped Republican candidates more than Democrats (see November 1, 2010 and January 21, 2012), apparently ignoring two years’ worth of evidence showing that in the wake of decisions, outside funding of Republican candidates has swamped Democrats’ efforts to retain parity (see August 2, 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, October 30, 2010, Mid-November 2010, January 26, 2011 and After, March 2011, (May 4, 2011), May 5, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 8, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 6, 2012, January 23, 2012, February 6, 2012, February 9, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 9, 2012, March 26, 2012, Late March 2012, April 13-20, 2012, April 22, 2012, and May 2, 2012). He cites an article by Weekly Standard contributor Andrew Ferguson that denies the “rich and powerful” donate more to Republicans than Democrats, where the only “evidence” Ferguson cited was his assertion that “Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich. Only Democrats seem not to realize this.” (Whelan 5/16/2012)
Final Thoughts - Whelan’s final article on the subject approvingly cites an equally negative critique of the Toobin article from Weekly Standard writer Adam White (see May 17, 2012), and insults law professor Richard Hasen’s perspective on the matter (see May 14-16, 2012); after noting that Hasen is a “[l]aw professor and election-law expert,” Whelan advises Hasen to read White’s column more closely. He also derides the idea that the Souter dissent is “secret,” noting that it would have been circulated among the other eight justices, and Justice John Paul Stevens would have had it available to him for his own published dissent. He then quotes Hasen’s critique of Stevens’s “somewhat meandering and ineffective” dissent, turns the phrasing around to insult Souter’s writing style, and says that Souter’s dissent may “reflect… too much of Souter’s draft dissent.” In attacking Hasen’s request for Souter to release the dissent, he contradicts himself by noting that the dissent is “confidential case information” that should remain out of public view. (Whelan 5/17/2012)
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