This page can be viewed at http://www.historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=clarence_thomas
“Objectivist” philosopher and burgeoning novelist Ayn Rand writes admiringly of one of her heroes, serial killer William Edward Hickman. She admires Hickman’s stated credo, “What is good for me is right.” In her journals, Rand writes in response, “The best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I have heard.” Rand is planning a novel, The Little Street, to feature a character based on Hickman, who she considers her “ideal man.” In her journals, Rand writes that Hickman “is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness—[resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people.… Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.” Later in her journals, she clarifies her idealization of Hickman: “[My hero is] very far from him, of course. The outside of Hickman, but not the inside. Much deeper and much more. A Hickman with a purpose. And without the degeneracy. It is more exact to say that the model is not Hickman, but what Hickman suggested to me.” (Rand will never complete The Little Street.)
Torturer and Killer - According to author and biographer Michael Prescott, in 1928, Hickman is one of the most notorious criminals in America, a forger, armed robber, child kidnapper, and multiple murderer. As a child, he enjoyed torturing and killing small animals. As a young man, he engaged in a crime spree beginning in the Midwest and ending in California, robbing gas stations and drug stores, allegedly murdering a girl in Milwaukee, and murdering the grandfather of his crime partner in Pasadena. That partner later told police that Hickman often talked about his desire to kill and dismember someone someday. In 1927, he kidnapped a 12-year-old girl, Marion Parker, from her school and began taunting her wealthy father with ransom notes. (He called himself “a master mind” and “not a common crook” in those notes, and signed himself “The Fox,” writing, “Fox is my name, very sly you know.” After days of exchanging letters, Hickman accused the father of lying about his intention of paying the ransom and strangled Marion Parker with a towel. After she was dead, he dismembered the body with a pocket knife, wrapped up the separate remains, packed the remains into a car, and drove to meet the father, tossing body parts out of the car along the way. The father, believing his daughter to still be alive, gave $1,500 to Hickman. In return, Hickman threw the girl’s head and upper torso out of the car at the father’s feet and sped off. Hickman fled to Oregon, where he was arrested. He quickly confessed to the murder, at least one more murder, and the robberies. After failing to pin his crimes on another man (presumably his former partner), and unsuccessfully claiming his innocence by reason of insanity, Hickman will be executed at San Quentin Prison. Prescott will write of Hickman, “Hickman reportedly ‘died yellow’—he was dragged, trembling and fainting, to his execution, his courtroom bravado having given way at last.”
Idealizing a Sociopath? - In 2005, Prescott will ask if Rand’s “ideal man” was, in reality, a criminal sociopath, and if so, what that says of Rand’s own values and judgment. In 1928, Prescott notes, Rand is still in her twenties and heavily influenced by the egocentric philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche. Rand writes of Hickman that he represents “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul.… Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” Hickman, she writes, is “a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy” filled with “immense, explicit egotism.” (Some newspaper writers at the time compare Hickman to Nietzche’s “Superman,” writing that Hickman twisted Nietzsche’s teachings to suit his own ends.) Her defenders might argue, Prescott will write, that as Rand matures, she will grow out of her fascination with Nietzsche, and, by extension, Hickman, and evolve a more rational outlook. (Michael Prescott 2005; Ames 2/26/2010)
Anti-Social, Amoral Characters in Later Books - However, Prescott uses quotes from Rand’s later novels to show her ongoing fascination with amoral, self-centered characters and the philosophies that inform their worldviews. She will write in her notes for The Fountainhead: “One puts oneself above all and crushes everything in one’s way to get the best for oneself. Fine!” Her notes on her novel’s hero, Howard Roark, say that Roark “has learned long ago, with his first consciousness, two things which dominate his entire attitude toward life: his own superiority and the utter worthlessness of the world.… He was born without the ability to consider others.” In the original version of her first novel We the Living, the character Kira, whom Prescott characterizes as “Rand’s stand-in,” says, “What are your masses [of humanity] but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?” Prescott notes that the statement will be altered in subsequent publications. In her journals, Rand will write that man “is man only so long as he functions in accordance with the nature of a rational being. When he chooses to function otherwise, he is no longer man. There is no proper name for the thing which he then becomes.… When a man chooses to act in a sub-human manner, it is no longer proper for him to survive nor to be happy.” In her longest novel, 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, she will refer to a crowd of poor and starving people as “savages,” “refuse,” “inanimate objects,” and “imitations of living beings,” all patently beneath the heroes and heroines of her story. In the novel, a wealthy citizen striking against progressive taxation causes a train crash, and Rand will make it clear that the people who die in the crash deserve it because they supported the taxation policies that triggered the attack. Rand will continue to write admiringly of the Nietzschean concept of the “Superman” throughout her career. Columnist Johann Hari will write: “Her heroes are a cocktail of extreme self-love and extreme self-pity: They insist they need no one, yet they spend all their time fuming that the masses don’t bow down before their manifest superiority.” (Michael Prescott 2005; Hari 11/2/2009; Ames 2/26/2010)
Rand Admired by Many Modern Republicans - In 2010, liberal columnist Mark Ames will go farther than either Prescott or Hari and label Rand “a textbook sociopath,” adding: “In her notebooks Ayn Rand worshiped a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used this killer as an early model for the type of ‘ideal man’ she promoted in her more famous books. These ideas were later picked up on and put into play by major right-wing figures of the past half decade, including the key architects of America’s most recent economic catastrophe—former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan and SEC Commissioner Chris Cox—along with other notable right-wing Republicans such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.” Ames will note that many politicians aligned with the “tea party” movement, such as Representatives Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Michele Bachmann (R-MN) are outspoken Rand admirers. (Ames 2/26/2010) Hari will ask: “What I do find incomprehensible is that there are people—large numbers of people—who see her writing not as psychopathy but as philosophy, and urge us to follow her. Why?” (Hari 11/2/2009)
Associate Justice William Rehnquist becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A strict conservative, Rehnquist will oversee the transformation of the Court from a middle-of-the-road, sometimes left-leaning instrument into a conservative entity dominated by the “axis” of Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia (see September 26, 1986), and Clarence Thomas (see July 2-August 28, 1991). (Mauro 9/5/2005)
False Testimony? - According to former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, writing in his 2007 book Broken Government, Rehnquist is the first true conservative fundamentalist to be appointed to the Court, “and he would set a pattern for other fundamentalists who found it necessary to make their way through the confirmation process by deception.” Dean, and others, have alleged that Rehnquist lied to the Senate both in his 1971 appointment to the Court as an associate judge (see January 7, 1972) and in his 1986 hearings for becoming chief justice. Dean will write that Rehnquist’s testimony during both sets of Senate confirmations hearings was “conspicuously false,” and in 1986 he committed “pure perjury.” In both sets of hearings, Rehnquist was embarrassed by a 1952 memo he had written while clerking for then-Justice Robert Jackson, in which Rehnquist had urged Jackson not to vote in support of the Brown v. Board of Education verdict that overturned the “separate but equal” clause that allowed for state-sponsored segregation. Although it is clear Rehnquist was stating his own pro-segregationist views, he apparently lied to the Senate over this memo as well, claiming that the memo was written to reflect Jackson’s own views and not his own. Dean will write, “It was an absurd contention, and a defamation of the dead justice for which he worked.” Law professor Laura Ray will observe in 1996: “With the [top] seat on the Supreme Court almost in his grasp, Rehnquist may well have retreated from an uncomfortable position taken almost twenty years earlier in the only way that seemed open to him. That such a step might tarnish the reputation of Justice Jackson years after his death does not seem to have been a concern.” (Dean 2007, pp. 129-137)
When Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first and only African-American to serve on the Court, announces his retirement, the Bush administration is ready with a far more conservative replacement. President Bush himself is already under fire for previously naming a moderate, David Souter, to the Court, and Bush is determined to give his conservative base someone they can back. Although Bush had wanted to nominate an appropriately conservative Hispanic, his eventual nomination is Clarence Thomas, who is completing his first year as a judge on the DC Court of Appeals. Thomas has two qualifications that Bush officials want: like Marshall, he is African-American; unlike Marshall, he is as conservative a jurist as Antonin Scalia (see September 26, 1986) or Robert Bork (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Two of former President Reagan’s closest legal advisers, C. Boyden Gray and Lee Liberman (a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society), privately call Thomas “the black Bork.” Bush calls Thomas “the most qualified man in the country” for the position. (Dowd 7/2/1991; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) During the July 2 press conference to announce Thomas’s nomination, Bush says: “I don’t feel he’s a quota. I expressed my respect for the ground that Mr. Justice Marshall plowed, but I don’t feel there should be a black seat on the Court or an ethnic seat on the Court.” For his part, Thomas extols his upbringing as a desperately poor child in Georgia, crediting his grandmother and the nuns who taught him in Catholic schools as particular influences on his life and values. Republican senator Orrin Hatch says that opposing Thomas will be difficult: “Anybody who takes him on in the area of civil rights is taking on the grandson of a sharecropper.” (Dowd 7/2/1991) However, the non-partisan American Bar Association’s recommendation panel splits on whether Thomas is qualified or not, the first time since 1969 the ABA has failed to unanimously recommend a nominee. Twelve panelists find Thomas “qualified,” two find him “not qualified,” and none find him “well qualified.” One senior Congressional aide calls the assessment of Thomas “the equivalent of middling.” (Lewis 8/28/1991; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) In 2007, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write, “For the president to send a nominee to the Supreme Court with anything less than a uniformly well-qualified rating is irresponsible, but such decisions have become part of the politicization of the judiciary.” Thomas, himself a beneficiary of the nation’s affirmative action programs, opposes them, once calling them “social engineering;” he has no interest in civil rights legislation, instead insisting that the Constitution should be “color-blind” and the courts should stay out of such matters. Civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental groups are, in Dean’s words, “terrified” of Thomas’s nomination. To overcome these obstacles, the Bush administration decides on a strategy Dean calls “crude but effective… us[ing] Thomas’s color as a wedge with the civil rights community, because he would pick up some blacks’ support notwithstanding his dismal record in protecting their civil rights. (Dowd 7/2/1991; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) The nomination of an African-American quells some of the planned resistance to a conservative nominee promised by a number of civil rights organizations. (Dowd 7/2/1991) Three months later, Thomas will be named to the court after a bitterly contentious brace of confirmation hearings (see October 13, 1991).
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas begin (see July 2-August 28, 1991). Thomas is exhaustively coached by a team headed by former senator John Danforth (R-MO), whom Thomas had worked for when Danforth was attorney general of Missouri. As per his coaching, Thomas says as little as possible in response to senators’ questions, staying with generalities and being as congenial, diffident, and bland as the questions will allow. Still, some of his statements defy belief.
Abortion Rights - Thomas is well-known as an ardent opponent of abortion rights, but he claims in testimony that he has no position on the fundamental abortion case of Roe v. Wade (see January 22, 1973), even though he has disparaged the case in his own legal writings. He even claims not to have discussed the case with anyone. His sympathetic biographer Andrew Peyton Thomas (no relation) later admits that “these representations about Roe proved a laughingstock.” Even conservative stalwart Paul Weyrich, who is running a “war room” to counter any negative statements about Thomas in the press or in the hearings, says publicly that Thomas has spoken of the case in discussions between the two, and calls Thomas’s dissembling “disingenuous” and “nauseating.” Weyrich considers, and rejects, withdrawing his support for Thomas.
Comparison with Rehnquist Hearings - Author and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write, “[I]t was clear that Thomas was going the route that [Supreme Court Justice William] Rehnquist had traveled” (see September 26, 1986): “Say anything that was necessary to win confirmation, regardless of the conspicuousness of the lie. Regrettably, it would get worse.” The Senate Judiciary Committee splits on sending Thomas’s name to the full Senate, 7-7, therefore making no recommendation either way. But head counts show that Thomas has a narrow but solid majority of senators ready to vote him onto the bench. (Dean 2007, pp. 146-153)
Clarence Thomas’s Senate confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court (see October 13, 1991) are muddied by explosive charges of sexual harassment. Anita Hill, a conservative, African-American law professor who once worked for Thomas both at the Department of Education and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Thomas’s alleged sexual advances towards her. The committee learned of the allegations from one of Hill’s close friends, who says that Hill was the victim of frequent and pernicious sexual harassment by Thomas. The committee has investigated Hill’s claims, but until now, the reticent Hill has been unwilling to come forward publicly and make the charges. (The FBI is conducting an investigation of the charges as well, though the investigation will be inconclusive.) After the story breaks in the press on October 6, committee members persuade her to come forward and lodge formal charges with the committee, thus allowing them to make her allegations public. The committee opens a second round of hearings to determine the accuracy of Hill’s charges. Hill’s testimony before the committee is calm and lethally specific. (Dean 2007, pp. 146-153)
Testimony - Hill tells the committee: “I am not given to fantasy. This is not something I would have come forward with if I was not absolutely sure of what I was saying.” Hill testifies: “He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.” He also “referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal” and spoke of the pleasure he had “given to women with oral sex.” Thomas spoke of his fondness for films depicting sex with animals, and of his particular fondness for one actor known as “Long Dong Silver.” Her last encounter with Thomas was in 1983, when, on her last day as an employee at the EEOC, she agreed to go to dinner with him after he “assured me that the dinner was a professional courtesy only.” She adds: “He made a comment I vividly remember.… He said that if I ever told anyone of his behavior, that it would ruin his career.” Judith Resnick, a law professor at the University of Southern California Law Center, says of Hill’s testimony, “You’re seeing a paradigm of a sexual-harassment case.” Asked why she is testifying now after so many years of silence, Hill says: “I have nothing to gain here. This has been disruptive of my life, and I’ve taken a number of personal risks.” She says she has been threatened, though she does not elaborate on the alleged threat. She concludes: “I have not gained anything except knowing that I came forward and did what I felt that I had an obligation to do. That was to tell the truth.” (Smolowe 10/21/1991) Thomas will vehemently deny the charges (see October 11-12, 1991), and his conservative supporters will smear Hill in the hearings (see October 8-12, 1991).
The conservative supporters of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (see October 13, 1991) ferociously respond to charges of sexual harassment against Thomas (see October 8, 1991 and October 11-12, 1991) by former employee Anita Hill. According to David Brock, a right-wing reporter who will write a scathing “biography” of Hill after the hearings, Thomas’s supporters quickly devise a strategy to counter the charges. They decide to portray the entire affair as a conspiracy by liberals to besmirch Thomas in order to keep a conservative off the Court. A team of Federalist Society lawyers works feverishly to find, or concoct, evidence to discredit Hill. One of the most effective counters comes from a story which Hill related to the committee, that Thomas had once turned to her and asked, “Who put this pubic hair on my Coke?” Federalist Society member Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is told by a staff member that a similar scene involving pubic hair and a glass of gin appears in the novel The Exorcist, and accuses Hill of lifting the scene from the novel and retelling it for her story of harassment. (Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) Hatch also accuses Hill of working with “slick lawyers” in a conspiracy to destroy Thomas’s nomination. Thomas supports that view; when asked if he believed Hill fabricated her story, Thomas replies, “Some interest groups came up with this story, and this story was developed specifically to destroy me.” (Smolowe 10/21/1991) Fellow committee member Arlen Specter (R-PA) excoriates Hill in a long and brutal round of questioning, at one point accusing her of perjury. He even submits a psuedo-psychological analysis of Hill to the committee that portrays her as imagining the events she is testifying towards. Committee member Alan Simpson (R-WY) suggests that he has damaging information about Hill’s own sexual proclivities, although he never provides that material for examination. Four witnesses testify to the accuracy of Hill’s charges; a string of character witnesses testify on behalf of Thomas. (Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) One of them testifies that he believes Hill was “unstable” and indulged in romantic fantasies about him. (Smolowe 10/21/1991) Democratic chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other committee Democrats do virtually nothing to defend Hill. Not only do they allow their Republican colleagues to “savage her,” in Dean’s words, but they refuse to release evidence they have compiled that supports Hill’s charges, including records of Thomas’s regular purchase of pornography and the statements of numerous other witnesses who have given statements in support of Hill, two even stating that they were also harassed by Thomas. They also fail to tell the committee that Hill has passed a polygraph test about her allegations. (Dean 2007, pp. 146-153)
Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (see October 13, 1991) responds to charges of sexual harassment from a former employee, law professor Anita Hill (see October 8, 1991). Thomas denies the charges, calling them a “travesty” and “disgusting,” and says that “this hearing should never occur in America.” (Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) “This is not American; this is Kafkaesque. It has got to stop. It must stop for the benefit of future nominees and our country. Enough is enough.” (Smolowe 10/21/1991) He accuses the committee of concocting the story out of whole cloth, and says: “The Supreme Court is not worth it. No job is worth it. I’m not here for that.…This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.” (Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) “No job is worth what I’ve been through—no job. No horror in my life has been so debilitating. Confirm me if you want. Don’t confirm me if you are so led.… I will not provide the rope for my own lynching. These are the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain just that, private.” Some observers wonder if Thomas is preparing to withdraw his nomination. But, though he says, “I would have preferred an assassin’s bullet to this kind of living hell,” he insists he would “rather die than withdraw.” (Smolowe 10/21/1991) While Thomas’s denials, and counter-charges of racism, are powerful, and make a tremendous impression on reporters, there are several fundamental flaws with his statement. The denial was not, as characterized by the press, a spontaneous outpouring of outraged innocence, but a carefully written and rehearsed performance, coached by his Republican handlers. And though he responds dramatically to Hill’s charges, he admits in the hearings that he never actually watched her testimony; his wife watched portions of it and reported back to Thomas. Though he denies Hill’s allegations that he asked her out for dates several times, and initially denies ever having any contact with her outside of work, he admits later in the hearings that he drove her home several times and stayed to discuss politics over “a Coke or a beer.” He admits that on “several instances” he visited her home outside of work entirely. Finally, the evidence gathered by the committee, and by researchers after Thomas’s ascension to the Court, overwhelmingly supports Hill’s allegations. Thomas never presents a shred of evidence to refute her charges. (Smolowe 10/21/1991; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153)
The full Senate votes to confirm Clarence Thomas (see July 2-August 28, 1991, October 8, 1991, and October 11-12, 1991) on a 52-48 vote, the lowest margin of victory by any Supreme Court nominee in US history. It is possible that some senators’ votes are influenced by a wash of “fast-action” polls reported by the White House, purporting to show that African-Americans overwhelmingly support Thomas, and a majority of citizens support Thomas’s confirmation. A year later, analysis proves those polls to be completely wrong. (Thomas Hearings Website 8/1997; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) In 1992, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will say: “That last hearing was not about Clarence Thomas. It was not about Anita Hill. It was about a massive power struggle going on in this country, a power struggle between women and men, and a power struggle between minoritites and the majority.” (Thomas Hearings Website 8/1997)
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)
John Yoo, the general counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, writes a book-length article for the California Law Review. Yoo’s article argues that under the Constitution, the president has far greater powers during wartime than is generally recognized. Basically, Yoo writes, Congress can only do two things to restrain a wartime president: restrict spending and impeach the president. The federal courts have no power over the president whatsoever. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. xx)
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 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)
President Bush gives a speech on the impending invasion of Iraq to a friendly audience at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. In the audience are, among others, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; the wife of Vice President Cheney, Lynne Cheney; and an assortment of cabinet officers.
Direct Accusations of WMD, Terrorist Ties - Bush accuses Saddam Hussein of “building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world,” and promises that “we will not allow it.” He accuses Hussein of having “close ties to terrorist organizations,” and warns that he “could supply them with the terrible means to strike this country—and America will not permit it. The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away. The danger must be confronted. We hope that the Iraqi regime will meet the demands of the United Nations and disarm, fully and peacefully. If it does not, we are prepared to disarm Iraq by force. Either way, this danger will be removed.” Bush states flatly that “[t]he safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat.”
Securing the Freedom of the World - Moreover, he asserts, “[a]cting against the danger will also contribute greatly to the long-term safety and stability of our world.… A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.” America will ensure that Iraq’s oil resources will be used to “benefit… the owners—the Iraqi people.” Bush evokes World War II when he says: “After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom.” And a democratic Iraq would have a positive influence on its neighbors, Bush says: “A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”
Resolution of Israeli-Palestinian Dispute - The overthrow of Saddam Hussein “could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state,” Bush states. “Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders. True leaders who strive for peace; true leaders who faithfully serve the people. A Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful state that abandons forever the use of terror.” If this comes to pass, Israel must recognize that state “and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement. As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end. And the Arab states will be expected to meet their responsibilities to oppose terrorism, to support the emergence of a peaceful and democratic Palestine, and state clearly they will live in peace with Israel.”
The Road Map for Peace - The occupation of Iraq, and the subsequent creation of a democratic Palestinian state, are the first steps in Bush’s “road map for peace,” he says. “We are setting out the necessary conditions for progress toward the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. It is the commitment of our government—and my personal commitment—to implement the road map and to reach that goal. Old patterns of conflict in the Middle East can be broken, if all concerned will let go of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and get on with the serious work of economic development, and political reform, and reconciliation. America will seize every opportunity in pursuit of peace. And the end of the present regime in Iraq would create such an opportunity.”
Internationalism at Work - “In confronting Iraq, the United States is also showing our commitment to effective international institutions,” Bush says. “We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. We helped to create the Security Council. We believe in the Security Council—so much that we want its words to have meaning.… A threat to all must be answered by all. High-minded pronouncements against proliferation mean little unless the strongest nations are willing to stand behind them—and use force if necessary. After all, the United Nations was created, as Winston Churchill said, to ‘make sure that the force of right will, in the ultimate issue, be protected by the right of force.’” Bush calls for the passage of the second UN Security Council resolution supporting a military strike against Iraq (see February 24, 2003), and notes that if the resolution does not pass, “the United Nations will be severely weakened as a source of stability and order. If the members rise to this moment, then the Council will fulfill its founding purpose.” (Bush 2/26/2003; CNN 2/27/2003)
'Presidential Seal of Approval' for War - Former ambassador Joseph Wilson will later observe, “With these words, the presidential seal of approval was stamped on a war to liberate an oppressed people and to redraw the political map of the Middle East.” Wilson goes on to write: “It was hard to disagree with the president that exporting democracy and freeing people from dictatorial regimes are laudable goals. But I also knew that that is not what we’ve structured the US military to do for our country. Notwithstanding administration promises of a cakewalk in Iraq, I was concerned it would be enormously difficult, costly, and time-consuming to impose democracy there at the barrel of a gun, requiring, above all, a grateful and compliant population. If we didn’t succeed, we would be forever blamed for the havoc we wrought in trying.” (Wilson 2004, pp. 319-320)
Point-by-Point Rebuttal - Author and professor of politics Stephen Zunes will write a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal to Bush’s speech (see March 8, 2003).
In the case of Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont, the Supreme Court rules that the ban on direct corporate donations by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972) is constitutional. The case concerns a challenge to the law by Christine Beaumont and North Carolina Right to Life (NCRL), an anti-abortion advocacy group that sued for the right to donate directly to political candidates under the First Amendment. Beaumont and the NCRL were twice denied in lower courts, and have appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Court upholds the ban. The majority opinion is written by Justice David Souter, who rules that the ban on direct contributions is consistent with the First Amendment. The Court cannot find in favor of NCRL, Souter writes, “without recasting our understanding of the risks of harm posed by corporate political contributions, of the expressive significance of contributions, and of the consequent deference owed to legislative judgments on what to do about them.” Two of the most conservative justices on the Court, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissent, arguing that the ban is not constitutional. (Brennan Center for Justice 6/16/2003; Oyez (.org) 2009)
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 co-founder and editor of the American Prospect, Robert Kuttner, subjects the 2002 House of Representatives to scrutiny, and concludes that under the rule of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), it is well on its way to becoming what he calls a “dictatorship.” Kuttner writes that such authoritarian rule in “the people’s chamber” of Congress puts the US “at risk of becoming an autocracy.” He explains: “First, Republican parliamentary gimmickry has emasculated legislative opposition in the House of Representatives (the Senate has other problems). [DeLay] has both intimidated moderate Republicans and reduced the minority party to window dressing.… Second, electoral rules have been rigged to make it increasingly difficult for the incumbent party to be ejected by the voters, absent a Depression-scale disaster, Watergate-class scandal, or Teddy Roosevelt-style ruling party split.… Third, the federal courts, which have slowed some executive branch efforts to destroy liberties, will be a complete rubber stamp if the right wins one more presidential election. Taken together, these several forces could well enable the Republicans to become the permanent party of autocratic government for at least a generation.” Kuttner elaborates on his rather sweeping warnings.
Legislative Dictatorship - The House, and to a lesser extent the Senate, used to have what was called a “de facto four-party system”: liberal Democrats; Southern “Dixiecrats” who, while maintaining their membership as Democrats largely due to lingering resentment of Republicans dating back to the Civil War, often vote with Republicans; conservative Republicans; and moderate-to-liberal “gypsy moth” Republicans, who might vote with either party. Rarely did one of the four elements gain long-term control of the House. Because of what Kuttner calls “shifting coalitions and weak party discipline,” the majority party was relatively respectful of the minority, with the minority free to call witnesses in hearings and offer amendments to legislation. In the House, that is no longer true. While the House leadership began centralizing under House Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX) between 1987 and 1989, the real coalescence of power began under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) between 1995 and 1999. The process, Kuttner asserts, has radically accelerated under DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL).
Centralized Legislation - Under current practices, even most Republicans do not, as a rule, write legislation—that comes from DeLay and Hastert. Drastic revisions to bills are often rammed through late in the evening, with little or no debate. The Republican leadership has classified legislation as “emergency” measures 57 percent of the time, allowing them to be voted on with as little as 30 minutes of debate. Kuttner writes, “On several measures, members literally did not know what they were voting for.” Legislation written and proposed by Democrats rarely gets to the floor for debate. Amendments to legislation is also constrained, almost always coming from Hastert and DeLay. “[V]irtually all major bills now come to the floor with rules prohibiting amendments.” DeLay enforces rigid party loyalty, threatening Republican members who resist voting for the leadership’s bills with loss of committee assignments and critical campaign funds, and in some circumstances with DeLay’s sponsoring primary opponents to unseat the uncooperative member in the next election.
Democrats Shut out of Conferences - In the House, so-called “conference committees,” where members work to reconcile House and Senate versions of legislation, have become in essence one-party affairs. Only Democrats who might support the Republican version of the bill are allowed to attend. The conference committee then sends a non-amendable bill to the floor for a final vote.
No Hearings - The general assumption is that House members debate bills, sometimes to exhaustion, on the chamber floor. No more. Before DeLay, bills were almost never written in conference committees. Now, major legislation is often written in conference committee; House members often never see the legislation until it has been written in final, non-amendable form by DeLay and his chosen colleagues.
Abuse of Appropriations - Appropriations, or funding of events authorized by legislation, are ripe for use and misuse by the one-party leadership. Many appropriations bills must pass in order for Congress or other entities of the government to continue functioning. While “earmarks”—“pork-barrel” appropriations for individual members’ pet projects and such—are nothing new, under Gingrich and later Hastert/DeLay, the use of earmarks has skyrocketed. Huge earmarks are now routinely attached to mandatory appropriations bills. DeLay has perfected a technique known as “catch and release.” On close pending votes, the House Republican Whip Organization, made up of dozens of regional whips, will target the small but critical number of Republicans who might oppose the legislation. Head counts are taken; as members register (and change) their votes, some are forced to vote against their consciences (or their constituents) and others are allowed to vote no. Kuttner writes, “Basically, Republican moderates are allowed to take turns voting against bills they either oppose on principle or know to be unpopular in their districts.” This allows the member to save at least some face with their constituents. Under Wright, Republican members such as then-Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) were outraged when Wright held a vote open for 15 minutes after voting was to end; Cheney called it “the most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I’ve ever seen in the 10 years that I’ve been here.” It is not unusual for DeLay to hold votes open for up to three hours to get recalcitrant members in line. (Kuttner 2/1/2004) In 2006, author John Dean will note that when the Republicans took control of the House in 1999, there were 1,439 earmarks in that year’s legislation. By the end of 2005, “there were a staggering 13,998 earmarked expenses, costing $27.3 billion.” Dean will write, “Needless to say, there is nothing conservative in those fiscal actions but there is much that is authoritarian about the wanton spending by those Republicans.” (Dean 2006)
Lack of Opposition - Kuttner notes that Congressional Democrats have not mounted a systematic, organized denunciation of the DeLay operation. Kuttner believes that many Democrats believe voters are uninterested in what they call “process issues,” and that voters will dismiss complaints as “inside baseball,” of little relevance to their lives. Worse, such complaints “make… us look weak,” as one senior House staffer says. Kuttner writes that many Democrats believe such complaints sound “like losers whining.”
Permanent Republican Majority - If DeLay and his confreres in the White House have their way, there will be, in essence, a permanent Republican majority in the House and hopefully in the Senate as well. Bill Clinton routinely practiced what he called bipartisan “triangulation,” building ad hoc coalitions of Democrats and Republicans to pass his legislative initiatives, and in the process weakening the Democratic leadership. Kuttner writes, “Bush’s presidency, by contrast, has produced a near parliamentary government, based on intense party discipline both within Congress and between Congress and the White House.” Republicans have been busy reworking the district maps of various key states to ensure that Republicans keep their majorities, concentrating perceived Democratic voters to have overwhelming majorities in a few districts, and leaving the Republicans holding smaller majorities in the rest. Both parties have been guilty of such “gerrymandering” in the past, but with DeLay’s recent “super-gerrymandering” of his home state of Texas, the Republican makeup of the Texas House delegation is all but assured. DeLay and other House Republicans are working to redistrict other states in similar fashions. As of the 2004 midterm elections, of the 435 House seats, only around 25 are considered effectively contestable—over 90 percent of the House seats are “safe.” Democrats would have to win a disproportionate, and unlikely, number of those “swing” seats to take back control of the House. Kuttner writes: “The country may be narrowly divided, but precious few citizens can make their votes for Congress count. A slender majority, defying gravity (and democracy), is producing not moderation but a shift to the extremes.”
Control of Voting - Kuttner cites the advent of electronic voting machines and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) as two reasons why Republicans will continue to have advantages at the voting booth. The three biggest manufacturers of electronic voting machines have deep financial ties to the Republican Party, and have joined with Republicans in opposing a so-called “verifiable paper trail” that could prove miscounts and possible fraudulent results. HAVA, written in response to the 2000 Florida debacle, requires that voters show government-issued IDs to be allowed to vote, a provision that Kuttner says is ripe for use in Republican voter-intimidation schemes. Republicans “have a long and sordid history of ‘ballot security’ programs intended to intimidate minority voters by threatening them with criminal prosecution if their papers are not technically in order,” he writes. “Many civil rights groups see the new federal ID provision of HAVA as an invitation to more such harassment.” The only recourse that voters have to such harassment is to file complaints with the Department of Justice, which, under the aegis of Attorney General John Ashcroft, has discouraged investigation of such claims.
Compliant Court System - Increasingly, federal courts with Republican-appointed judges on the bench have worked closely with Republicans in Congress and the White House to issue rulings favorable to the ruling party. Kuttner notes that if President Bush is re-elected: “a Republican president will have controlled judicial appointments for 20 of the 28 years from 1981 to 2008. And Bush, in contrast to both his father and Clinton, is appointing increasingly extremist judges. By the end of a second term, he would likely have appointed at least three more Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and locked in militantly conservative majorities in every federal appellate circuit.” The Supreme Court is already close to becoming “a partisan rubber stamp for contested elections,” Kuttner writes; several more justices in the mold of Justices Antonin Scalia (see September 26, 1986) and Clarence Thomas (see October 13, 1991) would, Kuttner writes, “narrow rights and liberties, including the rights of criminal suspects, the right to vote, disability rights, and sexual privacy and reproductive choice. It would countenance an unprecedented expansion of police powers, and a reversal of the protection of the rights of women, gays, and racial, religious, and ethnic minorities. [It would] overturn countless protections of the environment, workers and consumers, as well as weaken guarantees of the separation of church and state, privacy, and the right of states or Congress to regulate in the public interest.” (Kuttner 2/1/2004)
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).
In the case of Rasul v. Bush, involving Guantanamo detainees Shafiq Rasul, Mamdouh Habib, David Hicks, and Asif Iqbal, the Supreme Court holds in a 6-3 ruling that the US exercises “complete jurisdiction and control” over Guantanamo Bay, and thus, that the Guantanamo prisoners have the right to challenge their detentions before a judge. Under the habeas corpus statute, Justice John Paul Stevens writes for the majority that “aliens held at the base, no less than American citizens, are entitled to invoke the federal courts’ authority.” (Supreme Court opinion on writ of certiorari. Shafiq Rasul, et al. v. George W. Bush, et al. 6/28/2004) It is unclear whether the court’s ruling is intended to extend to detainees held in other parts of the world, but given the court’s reasoning, it appears that decision applies to detainees both in Guantanamo and elsewhere. (New York Times 6/29/2004)
Conservative Dissent - The three dissenting justices are conservatives William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Scalia says the decision is “an irresponsible overturning of settled law in a matter of extreme importance to our forces currently in the field.” He acknowledges that the location of Guantanamo has in fact been intended to keep detainees outside of the reach of the judiciary. “Today, the court springs a trap on the executive, subjecting Guantanamo Bay to the oversight of federal courts even though it has never before been thought to be within their jurisdiction, and thus making it a foolish place to have housed alien wartime detainees,” Scalia writes. Stevens writes that it does not matter what status the Guantanamo inmates have regarding the question of whether they should have access to a US court. “What is presently at stake is only whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to determine the legality of the executive’s potentially indefinite detention of individuals who claim to be wholly innocent of wrongdoing.” And this, he writes, they do. The case is subsequently sent back to a lower court to consider the prisoners’ claims. (Guardian 6/28/2004)
Side-Stepping the Ruling - The media characterizes the decision as a rebuke for the Bush administration, which had argued that the courts have no right to interfere in the commander in chief’s decisions involving wartime policies. However, the decision says nothing about what rights the detainees might have once they get inside a courtroom, and therefore actually places little real restraint on the government. White House officials will decide that the detainees have no rights in the courtroom whatsoever—although the Court has ruled that they can file lawsuits, those lawsuits must be dismissed out of hand because the detainees have no right to actually present a case. The Republican-led Congress will later pass a law stripping courts of jurisdiction over Guantanamo lawsuits. (Savage 2007, pp. 192)
In the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi v. Donald Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court rules 8-1 that, contrary to the government’s position, Hamdi (see December 2001), as a US citizen held inside the US, cannot be held indefinitely and incommunicado without an opportunity to challenge his detention. It rules he has the right to be given the opportunity to challenge the basis for his detention before an impartial court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes for the majority: “It would turn our system of checks and balances on its head to suggest that a citizen could not make his way to court with a challenge to the factual basis for his detention by his government, simply because the Executive opposes making available such a challenge. Absent suspension of the writ by Congress, a citizen detained as an enemy combatant is entitled to this process.” Hamdi, on the other hand, apart from military interrogations and “screening processes,” has received no process. Due process, according to a majority of the Court, “demands some system for a citizen detainee to refute his classification [as enemy combatant].” A “citizen-detainee… must receive notice of the factual basis for his classification, and a fair opportunity to rebut the government’s factual assertions before a neutral decision-maker.” However, O’Connor writes, “an interrogation by one’s captor… hardly constitutes a constitutionally adequate factfinding before a neutral decisionmaker.”
Conservative Dissent: President Has Inherent Power to Detain Citizens during War - Only Justice Clarence Thomas affirms the government’s opinion, writing, “This detention falls squarely within the federal government’s war powers, and we lack the expertise and capacity to second-guess that decision.” (Supreme Court opinion on writ of certiorari. Shafiq Rasul, et al. v. George W. Bush, et al. 6/28/2004) Thomas adds: “The Founders intended that the president have primary responsibility—along with the necessary power—to protect the national security and to conduct the nation’s foreign relations. They did so principally because the structural advantages of a unitary executive are essential in these domains.” (Dean 2007, pp. 105)
'A State of War Is Not a Blank Check for the President' - The authority to hold Hamdi and other such US citizens captured on enemy battlefields derives from Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001). Justice Antonin Scalia dissents from this portion of the majority ruling, saying that because Congress had not suspended habeas corpus, Hamdi should either be charged with a crime or released. The Court also finds that if Hamdi was indeed a missionary and not a terrorist, as both he and his father claim, then he must be freed. While the Court does not grant Hamdi the right to a full criminal trial, it grants him the right to a hearing before a “neutral decision-maker” to challenge his detention. O’Connor writes: “It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in these times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.… We have long made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”
Affirms President's Right to Hold US Citizens Indefinitely - Although the media presents the ruling as an unmitigated defeat for the Bush administration, it is actually far more mixed. The White House is fairly pleased with the decision, insamuch as Hamdi still has no access to civilian courts; the administration decides that Hamdi’s “neutral decision-maker” will be a panel of military officers. Hamdi will not have a lawyer, nor will he have the right to see the evidence against him if it is classified. This is enough to satisfy the Court’s ruling, the White House decides. In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “[T]he administration’s legal team noted with quiet satisfaction that, so long as some kind of minimal hearing was involved, the Supreme Court had just signed off on giving presidents the wartime power to hold a US citizen without charges or a trial—forever.” The Justice Department says of the ruling that it is “pleased that the [Court] today upheld the authority of the president as commander in chief of the armed forces to detain enemy combatants, including US citizens.… This power, which was contested by lawyers representing individuals captured in the War on Terror, is one of the most essential authorities the US Constitution grants the president to defend America from our enemies.” (Savage 2007, pp. 193-194)
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is accused of racism following remarks he makes about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on NBC’s Meet the Press. Asked by moderator Tim Russert if he could support conservative Justice Antonin Scalia as chief justice, Reid says Scalia’s ethics problems are troubling and that he disagrees with most of his positions, but adds that Scalia “is one smart guy.” Asked if he could support Thomas, Reid says: “I think that he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. I think that his opinions are poorly written. I don’t—I just don’t think that he’s done a good job as a Supreme Court justice.” (NBC News 12/5/2004) Conservative pundits are quick to accuse Reid of racism, though he never makes any mention of Thomas’s race. On December 6, Charles Krauthammer tells a Fox News audience: “In the end, you’ve got to ask yourself, why Scalia, good, Thomas, bad in the eyes of a man like Reid. I say it’s the liberal plantation mentality, in which if you’re a man on the right and white, it’s OK. If you are the man on the right and you’re African-American, it’s not.” The same day, Clifford May tells a CNN audience: “Look, Justice Thomas is African-American and he’s conservative. Some people [like Reid] will never forgive that and think that’s an open opportunity to insult him.” During his daytime radio broadcast, talk show host Rush Limbaugh tells his audience: “[I]t’s not a new page in the playbook but it’s certainly not as old as the playbook itself. But it’s been around awhile. That is conservative blacks are inept, a la Clarence Thomas.… You notice how easy it is for these people to be critical of blacks.” Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto writes that since Reid did not provide examples of Thomas’s “poorly written” opinions, “[i]n the absence of such examples, one can’t help but suspect that the new Senate Democratic leader is simply stereotyping Thomas as unintelligent because he is black.” That evening, Sean Hannity, co-host of Fox’s Hannity and Colmes, tells his listeners that Democrats routinely attack minority conservatives such as Thomas, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and federal judge nominee Miguel Estrada, and adds: “What I see is Democrats oppose African-Americans that are conservative, but yet they claim to support minority rights. And what I’m saying here is, why, if you’re for the advancement of minorities, why do you oppose every conservative African-American or Hispanic American? Why is this pattern emerging?” On December 7, African-American conservative Armstrong Williams says on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes: “Did you hear those racist remarks from Senator Harry Reid about Justice Thomas?… Harry Reid’s the one—he said Thomas was an embarrassment. He said he cannot write. That is racism.… That is racism, only because of the hue of his skin.… Read his [Reid’s] words. He was a racist.” On December 8, Taranto writes in another Wall Street Journal column, “To try to make Republican judges seem menacing, the Dems could call them ‘extremist’ or ‘out of the mainstream’ (and if the judges happen to be black, add that their opinions are ‘poorly written’).” (Pierce 12/6/2004; Media Matters 12/8/2004) Conservative columnist Ann Coulter will include Reid in her much wider attacks against what she calls “liberal racism” (see December 8, 2004).
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter, in her daily syndicated column, accuses Democrats and liberals of “racism” for criticizing African-American conservatives. Coulter’s column is partly in response to recent remarks by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that other conservatives have characterized as racist (see December 5-8, 2004). Coulter expands her criticism well beyond Reid, to accuse African-American columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times of being a “black liberal” whose criticism of black conservatives is, in her view, racially motivated, and accuses white Times media critic Caryn James of “launching racist attacks on black conservatives” (Coulter mistakenly identifies James as African-American). Coulter begins by referring to comments by the recently deceased Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, who called Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia “a brillant and compelling extremist” and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (see October 13, 1991) “Scalia’s puppet.” According to Coulter, McGrory’s statement “is the kind of rhetoric liberals are reduced to when they just can’t bring themselves to use the N-word.” Referring to Reid’s characterization of Thomas as the author of “poorly written” Court opinions, Coulter writes, “You’d think Thomas’ opinions were written in ebonics.” She concludes by calling Herbert and James “Uncle Toms.” The same evening, Coulter continues her attacks on Fox News, appearing as a guest on Bill O’Reilly’s broadcast. According to Coulter, liberals “feel like they have blacks on the plantation, they can say whatever they like. And, interestingly, you don’t even hear Hispanic conservatives attacked in the same way that people like Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas are, and—and, I mean, just look at it. Look at what the Democrats’ minority leader in the Senate said this weekend. He praises Scalia as ‘Oh, he’s one smart guy, and his opinions, can’t dispute the logic, though I disagree with them,’ and then he says of Clarence Thomas ‘He’s an embarrassment. His opinions—they’re just poorly written.’” O’Reilly agrees, saying that Democrats who try to “demean people with whom [they] disagree with politically” are “loathsome.” Coulter says that Democrats are “enraged” about the 2004 elections, and in response “they’re lashing out at the blacks.” (Ann Coulter 12/8/2009; Media Matters 12/10/2009)
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales testifies before the US Senate as part of his confirmation as the Bush administration’s new attorney general. Much of the seven hours of testimony focuses on Gonzales’s position on torturing terrorist suspects. He is specifically questioned on the August 2002 Justice Department memo requested by Gonzales that outlined how US officials could interrogate subjects without violating domestic and international laws against torture by setting unusually high standards for the definition of torture (see August 1, 2002). (Goodman and Gonzales 1/7/2005) Arlen Specter (R-PA) asks Gonzales if he approves of torture. Gonzales replies, “Absolutely not,” but refuses to be pinned down on specifics of exactly what constitutes torture.
Equivocating on the Definition of Torture - Gonzales says he “was sickened and outraged” by the photographs of tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison (see Evening November 7, 2003), but refuses to say whether he believes any of that conduct is criminal, citing ongoing prosecutions. Joseph Biden (D-DE) retorts: “That’s malarkey. You are obliged to comment. That’s your judgment we’re looking at.… We’re looking for candor.” (CNN 1/7/2005) When asked whether he agrees with the August 2002 memo that said, “[F]or an act to violate the torture statute, it must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” Gonzales says: “We were trying to interpret the standard set by Congress. There was discussion between the White House and Department of Justice as well as other agencies about what does this statute mean? It was a very, very difficult—I don’t recall today whether or not I was in agreement with all of the analysis, but I don’t have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached by the department.” He says that the standard “does not represent the position of the executive branch” today. Author and torture expert Mark Danner calls the standard “appalling… even worse the second time through.” Gonzales was obviously prepped for this line of questioning, Danner says: “He sat in front of the committee and asserted things, frankly, that we know not to be true.… He was essentially unwilling to say definitively there were no situations in which Americans could legally torture prisoners.… [T]here’s an assumption behind [this performance] that we have the votes. We’re going to get through. I just have to give them nothing on which to hang some sort of a contrary argument.”
Equivicating on Techniques - Edward Kennedy (D-MA) questions Gonzales about what techniques are defined as torture, including “live burial” (see February 4-5, 2004) and waterboarding. Kennedy says that, according to media reports, Gonzales never objected to these or other techniques. Gonzales does not have a “specific recollection” of the discussions or whether the CIA ever asked him to help define what is and is not torture. He also says that in “this new kind of” war against “this new kind of enemy, we realized there was a premium on receiving information” the US needs to defeat terrorists. Agencies such as the CIA requested guidance as to “[w]hat is lawful conduct” because they did not “want to do anything that violates the law.” Kennedy asks if Gonzales ever suggested that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) ever “lean forward on this issue about supporting the extreme uses of torture?” Gonzales focuses on Kennedy’s phrasing: “Sir, I don’t recall ever using the term sort of ‘leaning forward,’ in terms of stretching what the law is.” He refuses to admit giving any opinions or requesting any documents, but only wanted “to understand [the OLC’s] views about the interpretation” of torture. Danner notes that Justice Department officials have told reporters that Gonzales pushed for the expansive definition of torture in the memos, but Gonzales refuses to admit to any of that in the questioning.
Ignoring the Uniform Code of Military Justice - Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tells Gonzales that the Justice Department memo was “entirely wrong in its focus” because it excluded the Uniform Code Of Military Justice, and that it “put our troops at jeopardy.” Gonzales replies that he does not think that because of the memo the US has lost “the moral high ground” in the world. Danner says, “[Graham] is arguing that these steps weakened the United States, not only by putting troops at risk, but by undermining the US’s reputation in the world, undermining the ideological side of this war… Graham is saying very directly that by torturing, and by supplying images like that one, of… a hooded man, the man with the hood over his head and the wires coming out of his fingers and his genitals which is known far and wide in the Arab world in the Middle East it’s become highly recognizable by supplying that sort of ammunition, you’re giving very, very strong comfort and aid to the enemy in fact.” (Goodman and Gonzales 1/7/2005)
Steven Bradbury is nominated by President Bush to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). He will continue in that position on an acting basis into 2008, even though Congressional Democrats refuse to confirm him for the job, and even though his continuation in the post violates the Vacancies Reform Act, which precludes non-confirmed appointees for holding their positions for over 210 days (see October 16, 2007). (Ward 9/20/2007; Shane, Johnston, and Risen 10/4/2007; Ackerman 10/19/2007) Bradbury takes over from Jack Goldsmith, who resigned the position under fire (see June 17, 2004).
Arm of the White House - Bradbury has a long history of supporting the White House’s agenda of expansive executive power. He came to the Justice Department after clerking with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and mentoring under former Whitewater special counsel Kenneth Starr. (Shane, Johnston, and Risen 10/4/2007) A co-founder of the Federalist Society (Shenon 10/15/2007) , he is as staunchly conservative as any Bush appointee, but unlike some of the more outspoken of his colleagues, he comes across as low-key, pragmatic, and non-confrontational. As a Justice Department lawyer, Bradbury proved himself in line with the neoconservative views of Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington. Former State Department senior official Philip Zelikow recalls Bradbury as being “fundamentally sympathetic to what the White House and the CIA wanted to do.” Bradbury was brought in to the OLC in part to rein in that office, which under its previous head Jack Goldsmith became the hub of the internal opposition to Bush’s policies of “enhanced interrogation” and domestic surveillance (see Late 2003-2005). In 2005, Bradbury signs two secret Justice Department memos giving broad authorization and legal justification for the CIA’s torture of terrorist suspects (see February 2005 and Late 2005),. Bradbury works closely with then-White House counsel and current attorney general Alberto Gonzales to bring the Justice Department back into line with White House demands. Conservative legal scholar Douglas Kmiec, who headed the OLC under former presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, says he believes the intense pressures from the current administration’s campaign against terrorism has warped the OLC’s proper role. “The office was designed to insulate against any need to be an advocate,” Kmiec says. Now the OLC has “lost its ability to say no.… The approach changed dramatically with opinions on the war on terror. The office became an advocate for the president’s policies.”
Probation - Bradbury was first considered for the job after Gonzales, newly confirmed as attorney general, rejected the idea of promoting Daniel Levin, the acting head of the OLC after Goldsmith’s departure. Gonzales considered Levin unsuitable for the job because of his independence and support for Goldsmith’s dissents. Instead, Gonzales chose Bradbury for the job. But the White House was uncertain of Bradbury’s reliability, and so placed him on a sort of “internal trial,” monitored by Gonzales’s replacement at the White House, Harriet Miers. Miers judged Bradbury’s loyalty to the president and his willingness to work with Gonzales in justifying White House policy decisions. Bradbury reportedly understands that his “probation” is intended for him to show just how compliant and supportive he is of the White House, and he soon wins the confidence of the White House by completely aligning himself with Addington. (Shane, Johnston, and Risen 10/4/2007)
'Sordid criminal conspiracy' - Harper’s Magazine commentator and lawyer Scott Horton will write in November 2007 that it is obvious “Bradbury was picked for one reason: to provide continuing OLC cover for the torture conspirators.… The Justice Department’s strategy has been to cloak Bradbury’s torture memoranda in secrecy classifications and then to lie aggressively about their very existence.… This episode demonstrates once more the intimate interrelationship between the policies of torture, secrecy, and the right to lie to the public and the courts in the interests of shielding the Bush administration from public embarrassment. And once more the Justice Department is enlisted not in the enforcement of the law, but rather in a sordid criminal conspiracy.” (Horton 11/7/2007)
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)
During the Senate hearings to confirm conservative jurist Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the questioning turns to Alito’s views on the “unitary executive” theory (January 1, 1992). The theory seems to have originated in the Reagan administration’s Justice Department (see April 30, 1986), where Alito worked in the Office of Legal Counsel.
Lawyer Testifies to Unitary Executive - Former Clinton White House counsel Beth Nolan testifies about the theory and its potential for dramatically revamping the power of the presidency: “‘Unitary executive’ is a small phrase with almost limitless import. At the very least, it embodies the concept of presidential control over all executive functions, including those that have traditionally been executed by ‘independent’ agencies and other actors not subject to the president’s direct control.… The phrase is also used to embrace expansive interpretations of the president’s substantive powers, and strong limits on the legislative and judicial branches.” Nolan cites a November 2000 speech by Alito to the Federalist Society, where Alito said in part, “the president is largely impervious to statutory law in the areas of foreign affairs, national security, and Congress is effectively powerless to act as a constraint against presidential aggrandizement in these areas.” (Dean 2007, pp. 100-106) During the questioning session, Alito denies ever discussing the idea of inherent presidential powers during that speech.
Evasive Answers in Hearings - Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) says in his opening statement that he intends to press Alito on his support for what Durbin calls “a marginal theory at best… yet one you’ve said you believe.” Durbin notes that the Bush administration has repeatedly cited the theory to justify its most controversial policies and decisions, particularly in conducting its war on terror. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) adds: “The president is not a king, free to take any action he chooses without limitation, by law.… In the area of executive power, Judge Alito, you have embraced and endorsed the theory of the unitary executive. Your deferential and absolutist view of separation of powers raises questions. Under this view, in times of war the president would, for instance, seem to have inherent authority to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, to ignore Congressional acts at will, or to take any other action he saw fit under his inherent powers. We need to know, when a president goes too far, will you be a check on his power or will you issue him a blank check to exercise whatever power alone he thinks appropriate?” (Savage 2007, pp. 271-272) However, Alito refuses to address the issue in the hearings, giving what one journalist calls “either confused or less than candid” answers to questions concerning the subject.
Failure to Recall - During questioning, Alito turns aside inquiries about his avowed support for the unitary executive theory, saying he was merely talking about the idea that a president should have control over lesser executive branch officials, and was not referring to the usurpation of Congressional power by the executive. Further questions elicit nothing but a dry definition of the term. Asked about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s stinging dissent in the 2004 Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case (see June 28, 2004), where Thomas wrote that the authors of the Constitution believed a unitary executive was essential to the implementation of US foreign policies, Alito says he does not recall Thomas’s mention of the phrase. Asked about Bush’s signing statement that attempted to invalidate the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005), Alito merely recites the definition of a signing statement, and refuses to actually state his position on the issue (see February 6, 1986 and After). Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), disturbed by Alito’s refusal to address the subject, says he will vote against him in part because of Alito’s embrace of “the gospel of the unitary executive.” Kennedy cites one of the authors of the theory, law professor Steven Calabresi, one of the founders of the Federalist Society, who, Kennedy says, “acknowledged that, if the concept is implemented, it would produce a radical change in how the government operates.” (Dean 2007, pp. 100-106; Savage 2007, pp. 271-274)
ACLU Opposes Alito - The ACLU, for only the third time in its history, formally opposes Alito’s nomination, in part because of Alito’s embrace of the unitary executive theory of the presidency, citing Alito’s “expansive view of executive authority and a limited view of the judicial role in curbing abuses of that authority.” In its 86-year history, the ACLU has only opposed two other Court nominees: William Rehnquist and former Solicitor General Robert Bork. (American Civil Liberties Union 1/9/2006)
Opposition Fails - However, none of this is effective. Alito is sworn in less than a month later, after Democrats in the Senate fail to successfully mount a filibuster against his confirmation. (CNN 2/1/2006)
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 Supreme Court, ruling in the Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission case, finds that some political advertisements can be exempted from the “electioneering communications” provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act (see March 27, 2002). The case stems from attempts by an anti-abortion advocacy group, Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL), to run ads asking viewers to contact their senators and urge them to oppose filibusters of judicial nominees. WRTL tried to run its ads during the 30 and 60-day “blackout” periods before the upcoming 2004 elections, but because it accepted corporate contributions and was itself incorporated, the McCain-Feingold restrictions prevented the ads from running. WRTL argued that the ads were not targeting candidates, but were strictly issue-related (see Mid-2004 and After). The case was initially dismissed, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the lower courts. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) argued that the ads were intended to influence US Senate elections in Wisconsin, and thusly should be regulated by McCain-Feingold. A district court disagreed, ruling against the FEC and finding that the ads were “protected speech” (see January 30, 1976), though it limited its findings solely to the WRTL ads and specified that its ruling was not to apply to other cases. The FEC appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision finds that the district court’s ruling is valid. Chief Justice John Roberts writes the majority opinion, which establishes broad exemptions for advertisements that could be “reasonably” interpreted as being about legislative issues and not directed on behalf of, or against, a particular candidate. As long as “issue ads” do not contain the “functional equivalent” of express advocacy for or against a candidate, the Roberts opinion holds, and the advertisements are legal. The ads involve “core political speech” that is protected by the First Amendment, Roberts finds: “We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship.” Justice David Souter writes the dissenting opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas write a concurring opinion that joins them with Roberts and the other two conservative justices, but in their concurrence, they say they would overturn the McCain-Feingold law in its entirety. (Geraci 2006 ; Savage 6/26/2007; FindLaw 2011; National Public Radio 2012; Oyez (.org) 7/1/2012) Roberts is careful in the language of his majority opinion, writing that “the First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.” He does not directly advocate for the overturning of the McCain-Feingold law, but referring to the 2003 McConnell decision that upheld the law (see December 10, 2003), he writes, “We have no occasion to revisit that determination today.” In 2012, reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write of Roberts’s use of the word “today,” “To those who know the language of the Court, the Chief Justice was all but announcing that five justices would soon declare the McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional.” (Toobin 5/21/2012) Toobin is referring to the 2010 Citizens United decision that will overturn most of the law (see January 21, 2010).
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)
Retired New Jersey attorney, professional gambler, and conservative blogger Leo C. Donofrio files a lawsuit asking the State Supreme Court to prohibit three candidates from appearing on New Jersey’s presidential ballot: Barack Obama (D-IL), John McCain (R-AZ), and Socialist Worker’s Party candidate Roger Calero. Donofrio claims that none of the three have proven to his satisfaction that they are “natural born citizens,” as the Constitution requires to serve as president (see June 13, 2008, June 27, 2008, July 2008, August 21, 2008, and October 30, 2008). The lawsuit asks Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells to intervene in the elections process. In his filing, Donofrio writes that Obama is not eligible for the presidency “even if it were proved he was born in Hawaii, since… Senator Obama’s father was born in Kenya and therefore, having been born with split and competing loyalties, candidate Obama is not a ‘natural born citizen.’” Obama has long ago posted his authentic birth certificate stating he was born in Hawaii and therefore is a US citizen (see June 13, 2008). McCain’s birth in the Panama Canal Zone (see March 14 - July 24, 2008) and Calero’s birth in Nicaragua, Donofrio continues, invalidate their ability to be president as well, even though the Constitution states otherwise. With three ineligible presidential candidates on ballots, Donofrio warns, New Jersey voters will “witness firsthand the fraud their electoral process has become.” After being rejected by the New Jersey Court, US Supreme Court Justice David Souter rejects the lawsuit’s appearance on the Court docket. Justice Clarence Thomas allows the case to be submitted for consideration, but the Court rejects it. (Leo C. Donofrio v. Nina Mitchell Wells, Secretary of State of the State of New Jersey 10/31/2008; Schilling 11/13/2008; Obama Conspiracy (.org) 12/21/2008; St. Petersburg Times 6/28/2010) After his case is thrown out, Donofrio will write on his blog that “you have no Constitution and you have no ‘Supreme’ court. You have a filthy corrupted snake pit which tried to protect itself from responsibility for this issue by using clerks like brutal praetorian guards.” (Obama Conspiracy (.org) 12/21/2008) An Internet rumor that Justice Antonin Scalia will “quietly” place the case on the Court docket is later proven entirely false (see June 28, 2010).
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).
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in a rare public appearance to answer questions from the winners of a high school essay contest sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, says he does not embrace the Bill of Rights. “Today there is much focus on our rights,” he says. “Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights.” He suggests that there should be two “alternatives” to the document, saying: “I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances. Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?” (Liptak 4/13/2009)
New Republic columnist Jeffrey Rosen, stung by criticism of his recent article using anonymous sources questioning the character and reputation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (see May 4, 2009, May 5, 2009, and May 26, 2009), attempts to backtrack from his original assertions. He writes, “Of course, Judge Sotomayor should be confirmed to the Supreme Court,” and continues: “In my view the strongest case to be made for Sotomayor is not her inspiring life story: [Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas overcame similar personal obstacles, but far from giving him a sense of empathy, his background has created a sense of anger and ideological rigidity. Instead, the strongest case to be made for Sotomayor is the idea that the range of her experience—as a trial judge, appellate judge, and commercial litigator—might give her the humility to recognize that courts participate in a dialogue with the political branches when it comes to defining constitutional rights, rather than having the last word.… Conservatives are already citing my initial piece on Sotomayor as a basis for opposing her. This willfully misreads both my piece and the follow-up response. My concern was that she might not make the most effective liberal voice on the Court—not that she didn’t have the potential to be a fine justice. Questions of temperament are often overlooked, but history suggests that they are the most relevant in predicting judicial success. (Justice [Antonin] Scalia may be a brilliant bomb-thrower, but has failed in his attempts to build coalitions and bipartisan majorities.) Now is the time to think more broadly about the role Justice Sotomayor is likely to play on the Supreme Court, and I look forward to doing that in the weeks ahead.” (Rosen 5/26/2009)
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)
In November 2009, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a former Republican campaign operative and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, establishes a new “tea party” organization she calls Liberty Central. (Some media sources claim that Liberty Central begins operations in January 2010.) She describes the group as intended to bridge the gap between the conservative Republican establishment and the anti-government tea party movement. “I am an ordinary citizen from Omaha, Nebraska, who just may have the chance to preserve liberty along with you and other people like you,” she says at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) discussion with tea party leaders in Washington. “I adore all the new citizen patriots who are rising up across this country. I have felt called to the front lines with you, with my fellow citizens, to preserve what made America great.” She also says she started the group because of her reaction to what she calls President Obama’s “hard-left agenda.” The group also intends to work to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats, and provide political strategies and “talking points” for conservative candidates. (Hennessey 3/14/2010; Commission 7/1/2010; Vogel 7/6/2010; Vogel, Cogan, and Bresnahan 2/4/2011) In May 2010, the organization officially declares itself open for business, launching a $27,000 Web site, and touting partnerships with a number of prominent conservative groups and the backing of prominent conservatives such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Federalist Society executive Leonard Leo, whom Justice Thomas has called “my good friend.” (Vogel 7/6/2010)
Questions of Conflict of Interest, Ethics - Almost immediately, legal ethicists assert that Virginia Thomas’s role as the head of a partisan, openly political advocacy organization could taint her husband’s impartiality, especially in light of the Citizens United Court decision, in which her husband sided with the 5-4 majority (see January 21, 2010), that allows her group to accept donations and spend them without publicly disclosing information about them. The group could have benefited from the Court’s decision, and Justice Thomas’s decision could be seen as being influenced by his wife’s decision to start the group. Law school professor Lucas A. “Scot” Powe, a Court historian, says, “I think the American public expects the justices to be out of politics.” The expectations for spouses are not so clear, he adds, saying, “I really don’t know because we’ve never seen it.” Legal ethicist Stephen Gillers, another law professor, says, “We expect the justice to make decisions uninfluenced by the political or legal preferences of his or her spouse.” Moreover, the press learns that while the Court was deliberating the Citizens United case, Liberty Central received an anonymous $550,000 donation. Government watchdog organization Common Cause wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking if Justice Thomas should recuse himself from the case, and wrote that “the complete lack of transparency of Liberty Central’s finances makes it difficult to assess the full scope of the ethics issues raised by Ms. Thomas’s role in founding and leading the group.” (The media later learns that $500,000 of the anonymous $550,000 donation for the organization comes from Dallas real estate investor Harlan Crow, who also hosts a fundraising event for the organization at his home. Crow once gave Justice Thomas a $19,000 “Frederick Douglass Bible” as a gift, and donated $150,000 to build a new wing named for Justice Thomas on a Savannah, Georgia, library that he visited frequently in his youth.) Common Cause also notes that Justice Thomas had failed to report on his financial disclosure filings his wife’s income over the last 13 years, prompting him to file amendments to the filings that indicated the sources, but not the amounts, of his wife’s income. Justice Thomas refuses to recuse himself from the case.
Period of Success - Liberty Central flourishes for a brief time, with Virginia Thomas assembling a veteran staff and forging relationships with conservative donors, with most of whom she and her husband had long, close relationships. Carl Graham of the Montana Policy Institute, one of the over 30 state and national tea party groups that are listed as partners in Liberty Central’s affiliate network, says, “Her association with Justice Thomas clearly provides a level of credibility that others wouldn’t be able to have, just because of the beliefs that he has and the stands that he has on the different positions that align with our own.” Liberty Central’s connection with Justice Thomas, Graham says, “gets you to open the email, if nothing else, as opposed to some other one that you may not even open.” Liberty Central hires the services of CRC Public Relations, a prominent Washington communications firm that has garnered some $15 million in fees from a number of clients, including top Republican Party committees and the presidential campaigns or political committees of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, among others. Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, a tea party lobbying organization also partnered with Liberty Central (see April 14, 2009 and April 15, 2009), says, “Ginni was able to raise the seed capital to have a real launch” because of her connections in small-government conservative circles. Kibbe says most people are unaware that she is the wife of a Supreme Court justice. Tea Party Patriots leader Jenny Beth Martin calls Thomas a “mentor” for many tea party organizations, and says she helps these organizations “to navigate some of the waters in DC.… She’s been kind of a mentor, and when we had questions about things that we were doing, we bounced a few of the ideas off of her and also off of a few other people in DC just to make sure that what we were doing made sense.” (Hennessey 3/14/2010; Vogel 7/6/2010; Vogel, Cogan, and Bresnahan 2/4/2011)
Media Attention - In a June 2010 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Thomas says she is sure “liberals” will “persecute” her just as she says they did when her husband was undergoing confirmation for the Supreme Court. “They’re after me now sometimes,” she says. “And so, we’re not going to be dissuaded. We are in the fight for our country’s life.” She and Hannity engage in a lively conversation about the “tyranny” of the Obama administration. She also promises to “watch for conflicts” between herself and her husband. In October 2010, the media reports that Virginia Thomas leaves a voice mail for former college professor Anita Hill, who accused her husband of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings for the Court (see October 8, 1991, October 8-12, 1991, and October 11-12, 1991), demanding that Hill issue an apology to her husband. The voice mail says: “Good morning, Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas. I just want to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometimes and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. Okay, have a good day.” The attention from the voice mail prompts more negative media attention, and some donors begin distancing themselves from the organization. (Virginia Thomas later admits that her voice mail message for Hill was “probably a mistake,” though she will call the media’s response to it “laughable.” She will call the message “an olive branch” she extends to Hill. For her part, Hill says: “I don’t apologize. I have no intention of apologizing and I stand by my testimony in 1991.”) (Hennessey 3/14/2010; Fox News 6/8/2010; Vogel 7/6/2010; Smith and Shiner 10/19/2010; Gardner 11/15/2010)
Thomas Steps Down, Group Merges with Another Organization - In November 2010, Virginia Thomas steps down from her leadership post at Liberty Central. The group then merges with another, similar group called the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, an organization founded by ex-CIA agent Gary Aldrich, who wrote a largely discredited book “exposing” the “secrets” of the Clinton administration. Sources later tell reporters that Virginia Thomas sells off Liberty Central because it cannot raise the funds needed to support its large staff and high overhead. According to CRC spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll, Thomas will “take a back seat so that Liberty Central can continue with its mission without any of the distractions. After discussing it with the board, Mrs. Thomas determined that it was best for the organization.” However, Sarah E. Field, general counsel of Liberty Central, disagrees, saying: “There are many opportunities being presented to Liberty Central, but there is no agreement at this time.… The sources of this story appear to be people without full understanding of the facts.” Keith Appell of CRC tells a reporter that the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner “breached confidentiality” by reporting her conversation with Carroll. Gardner responds, “Everything I attributed to Caitlin Carroll comes from an on-the-record conversation we had by telephone this morning.” Within hours, Thomas files incorporation papers for a new political lobbying and consulting firm, Liberty Consulting (see February 4, 2011). (Vogel 7/6/2010; Vogel 11/15/2010; Gardner 11/15/2010; Vogel, Cogan, and Bresnahan 2/4/2011)
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)
In a highly unusual action for a sitting Supreme Court Justice, Justice Clarence Thomas strongly defends the Court’s recent Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited corporate and union funding of campaign activities (see January 21, 2010). He makes his remarks at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Florida. Thomas was part of the 5-4 majority that ruled on the case. He also says that he refused to attend the recent State of the Union address by President Obama, where fellow Justice Samuel Alito apparently contradicted Obama’s critical characterization of the ruling (see January 27-29, 2010), because under Obama, these addresses have become “partisan,” stating: “I don’t go because it has become so partisan and it’s very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there… there’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV—the catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments (see September 9, 2009). One of the consequences is now the Court becomes part of the conversation, if you want to call it that, in the speeches. It’s just an example of why I don’t go.” Thomas mocks media criticisms of the ruling, saying: “I found it fascinating that the people who were editorializing against it were The New York Times Company and The Washington Post Company. These are corporations.” It is a mistake, Thomas says, to consider regulation of corporations’ campaign activities as “some sort of beatific action,” and he cites the 1907 Tillman Act, the first federal legislation banning corporate contributions to federal candidates (see 1907), as being sparked by racism, saying: “Go back and read why [Senator Benjamin] Tillman introduced that legislation. Tillman was from South Carolina, and as I hear the story he was concerned that the corporations, Republican corporations, were favorable toward blacks and he felt that there was a need to regulate them.” Thomas says the underpinning of the decision was the First Amendment’s protection of speech regardless of how people choose to assemble to participate in the political process. “If 10 of you got together and decided to speak, just as a group, you’d say you have First Amendment rights to speak and the First Amendment right of association,” he says. “If you all then formed a partnership to speak, you’d say we still have that First Amendment right to speak and of association. But what if you put yourself in a corporate form?” The answer would be the same, Thomas says. (Liptak 2/3/2010)
Chief Justice John Roberts tells a group of law students that President Obama and Congressional Democrats turned the recent State of the Union address into a “pep rally” targeting Court justices, and questions the need for justices to attend the event. During the speech, Obama criticized the Citizens United decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising (see January 21, 2010), and Justice Samuel Alito drew media attention by mouthing the words “Not true” in response to Obama’s remarks (see January 27-29, 2010). Roberts is referring to the fact that many Congressional Democrats cheered the president’s remarks. He calls the event “very troubling,” and says, “To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we are there.” Six of the Court’s nine justices, including Alito and Roberts, were in attendance. Roberts says he is less concerned about the criticism of the Court than the expectation that the justices must sit silently: “Anybody can criticize the Supreme Court.… I have no problem with that. The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the Court—according to the requirements of protocol—has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling. It does cause me to think… why are we there?” Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas did not attend, complaining that the address would be a “partisan” event (see February 2, 2010), and Justice John Paul Stevens, who strongly dissented from the Citizens United decision, did not attend due to age and health issues. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responds strongly to Roberts’s remarks, saying, “What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections, drowning out the voices of average Americans.” (Savage 3/10/2010) Three weeks after Roberts makes his observations, conservative talk show host David Limbaugh will call Obama’s criticisms a “public assault” on the justices. (David Limbaugh 4/5/2012)
The non-partisan PolitiFact, an organization sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, responds to a recent claim that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has approved a case challenging President Obama’s US citizenship (see October 31, 2008 and After). The claim comes from a chain email circulating around the Internet that purports to feature an Associated Press (AP) article titled, “Very Quietly Obama’s Citizenship Case Reaches the Supreme Court.” The article is not a legitimate AP creation, according to AP spokesperson Jack Stokes, and in fact is an April Fool’s Day joke. The email quotes the article as saying, “Under growing pressure from several groups, Justice Antonin Scalia announced that the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear arguments concerning Obama’s legal eligibility to serve as president in a case brought by Leo Donofrio of New Jersey.” Donofrio has indeed sued New Jersey Secretary of State Nina Wells in an attempt to block New Jersey’s certification of Obama’s presidential victory there in November 2008; Donofrio claimed that Obama has dual US-British citizenship and therefore is ineligible to be president. The case was turned down by the Supreme Court. PolitiFact notes that it takes four Justices, not one, to have the Court hear a case. In such an instance, the Court issues a “writ of certiorari,” sometimes referred to as “cert.” No individual justice ever makes such an announcement. Donofrio’s case first went to Justice David Souter, who denied the request. It then went to Justice Clarence Thomas, who submitted it to committee. The Court denied “cert” for the case. PolitiFact calls the claim “ridiculous and misleading.” (St. Petersburg Times 6/28/2010)
California “birther” attorney Orly Taitz, attempting to avoid paying a $20,000 fine levied against her by a Georgia district court judge (see October 13-16, 2009), says after losing an appeal (see March 15, 2010) that she intends to appeal the fine to the Supreme Court. She files an application for stay of the fine to Justice Clarence Thomas, who denies it; she then refiles the application with Justice Samuel Alito, meanwhile demanding proof that Thomas actually denied the application (Freddoso 7/7/2010; Riquelmy 8/4/2010) and asking Chief Justice John Roberts to verify Thomas’s dismissal. In her filing with Roberts, Taitz says she found the notice of dismissal on the Supreme Court’s Web site on a Saturday, just hours after “some Obama supporters” posted comments on her Web site “gloating about the fact that Justice Thomas dismissed her application.” She says that according to her examination, the Supreme Court docket has been altered and tampered with. She says that a previous appeal she had filed with the Court had also been deleted without explanation, and writes: “Currently, there is a clear pattern of entries being made on the docket of the Supreme Court, or entries or even cases deleted, when the court is closed and the justices and the clerks are not there.… Supreme Court is not a city bus, when one can go in and out any time he feels like.” Taitz demands to be allowed to visit the Supreme Court with a “forensic document expert” who can verify the validity of “the orders pertaining to her cases and verify and clarify, that there is a valid signature of Justice Thomas and his clerk on the denial of application 10A56, entered on the docket on Saturday 17, 2010” and of other cases she has filed, and demands that she and a “computer security expert” be allowed to examine the electronic docket of the cases pertaining to her and her clients to ascertain if they have been altered. (Orly Taitz 7/20/2010; Wisckol 7/22/2010) Alito refers the application to the full Court, which dismisses the application without comment. (United Press International 8/16/2010) It is unclear what, if any, response Roberts gives to Taitz. After the Court rejects her appeal, the government will place a lien on her property (see August 9, 2010 - January 11, 2011).
The media reports that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a former Republican campaign operative and the former head of a tea party organization, has become the head of a lobbying and political consulting firm, Liberty Consulting. The firm boasts that Thomas’s “experience and connections” will assist clients with “governmental affairs efforts” and political donation strategies. Critics say Thomas is in the midst of an enormous conflict of interest, because her husband, Clarence Thomas, is a Supreme Court justice. She left the tea party group in November 2009 because of questions that her leadership of the group, Liberty Central, which actively worked to defeat Democrats, was not appropriate for the wife of a sitting Court justice. Thomas has met with almost half of the 99 Republican freshmen in the House and Senate, according to an email she sent out to congressional chiefs of staff last week in which she called herself “a self-appointed ambassador to the freshmen class and an ambassador to the tea party movement.” Ann Pearson of the government watchdog organization Common Cause says that Thomas’s position at a lobbying and consulting firm “show[s] a new level of arrogance of just not caring that the Court is being politicized and how that undermines the historic image of the Supreme Court as being above the political fray.… It raises additional questions about whether Justice Thomas can be unbiased and appear to be unbiased in cases dealing with the repeal of the health care reform law or corporate political spending when his wife is working to elect members of the tea party and also advocating for their policies.” Some Republican lawmakers are uncomfortable with Thomas’s new position, with one senior House Republican aide criticizing Thomas for attempting to “cash in” on her ties to the tea party movement. Republican House freshman David Schweikert (R-AZ), who won his election in part because of support from tea party groups and was endorsed by Liberty Central, says he has not met Thomas and knows nothing of her background. “This is the spouse of Justice Thomas?” he says when asked about the situation by a reporter. “No, I’ve never met her. It’s not something I’ve heard about. And I hang out with a lot of freshman.” So far, only one Republican freshman will publicly admit to scheduling a meeting with Thomas. Thomas used to be an aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), who until recently headed the tea party financing organization FreedomWorks (see August 14, 2009). She has also worked as a staffer at the US Chamber of Commerce, a trade organization that contributes heavily to Republican causes (see January 21-22, 2010), and at the conservative Heritage Foundation. In 2009 she founded Liberty Central, which she described as a group that would bridge the gap between the conservative Republican establishment and the anti-government tea party movement. She eventually stepped down after questions were raised about her position’s impact on her husband’s appearance of impartiality, and the group was merged into another tea party organization (see November 2009 - November 2010). She filed incorporation papers for Liberty Consulting within a day of news reports about her departure from Liberty Central. She has told conservative news source Daily Caller that she intends to continue working for the group that bought Liberty Central, the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, and will “help them in any way I can think of, whether it’s lobbying on the Hill or connecting with the grass roots, or helping speak or write or fundraise.” However, lobbying records show no registration for Thomas, Liberty Consulting, Liberty Central, or the Patrick Henry Center. Liberty Central general counsel Sarah Field refuses to answer questions about whether Thomas is being paid through Liberty Consulting as a consultant. A source familiar with the Thomases and with Capitol Hill Republicans says her sojourn from Liberty Central to Liberty Consulting has damaged her reputation among some conservatives. “Ginni’s reputation around town is now even more of a fake entitled woman who is only here because of her husband,” the source tells a reporter. “Now she has opened her own lobbying shop… not sure how [the] conservative circle will feel when they find that out, or if they’ll care or not.” (Vogel, Cogan, and Bresnahan 2/4/2011)
Previous Conflicts of Interest - Virginia Thomas has weathered criticisms of conflict of interest before. In late 2000, as a Heritage Foundation staffer, she was helping select key members for the Bush administration even as her husband was engaged in deliberating the Bush v. Gore Court decision that installed George W. Bush as president (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000). At the time she waved off criticisms, saying that she and her husband conducted “separate professional lives.” (Hennessey 3/14/2010)
'Cloud of Corruption' Surrounding Justice Thomas? - Legal analyst Ian Millhiser of the liberal news Web site Think Progress is far more blunt in his assessment than some more cautious critics, writing: “Now, Ginni Thomas appears to have found a way to earn money off her husband’s actions as a justice. Clarence Thomas released countless amounts of corporate spending on US elections [by voting with the majority in Citizens United], and Ginni Thomas can get rich advising those corporate clients on how to direct that spending. To be sure, it is possible that Ginni is somehow limiting her advice to ‘political investments’ that were legal before Clarence gave businesses like hers so many new potential customers. But if this is the case, Ginni has an obligation to explain just how she is limiting her advice—it’s the only way to remove the obvious cloud of corruption her actions have created around her husband.” (Millhiser 2/4/2011)
The government watchdog and campaign finance advocacy group Common Cause asks the Supreme Court to explain why Justice Clarence Thomas did not completely disclose the nature of his participation in a 2008 retreat hosted by Charles and David Koch, the influential oil billionaires and conservative advocates (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1997, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, Late 2004, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, November 2009, December 6, 2009, April 2010 and After, July 3-4, 2010, June 26-28, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 24, 2010, January 5, 2011, and October 4, 2011). According to a Court spokesperson, Thomas made a “brief drop-by” at a four-day event in Palm Springs, California, held in January 2008, and gave a talk. But disclosure reports filed by Thomas show that he was reimbursed an undisclosed amount for four days of “transportation, meals, and accommodations” over the weekend of the retreat. The reimbursement came from the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal group. Today Common Cause sends a letter to the Court asking for “further clarification” as to why the two statements are at odds. Common Cause official Arn Pearson says, “I don’t think the explanation they’ve given is credible.” If Thomas’s visit was a “four-day, all-expenses paid trip in sunny Palm Springs,” Thomas should have reported it as a gift under federal law. The Court, the Federalist Society, and Koch Industries all refuse to comment on the issue. Common Cause has said that because of Thomas’s past appearances at the Koch retreats, and the conservative political work done by his wife Virginia Thomas (see November 2009 - November 2010 and February 4, 2011), he should have recused himself from the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). Common Cause notes that both Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia have appeared at Koch-hosted retreats. Both Thomas and Scalia voted as part of the 5-4 majority that decided the case. Political analysts say the Koch brothers have been some of the main beneficiaries of the decision. (Lichtblau 2/14/2011)
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)
Politico reporters Kenneth P. Vogel and Tarini Parti report on the difficulty of getting solid information about the donors being organized by the billionaire Koch brothers. Oil magnates Charles and David Koch (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, Late 2004, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 24, 2010, January 5, 2011, October 4, 2011, and February 14, 2011) intend to raise at least $400 million to defeat President Obama in the 2012 election (see Late May 2012), and to ensure victory for Republicans in state and local races around the nation (see February 21, 2012). Vogel and Parti call the Koch political operation “its own political party,” almost, even going so far as to hold its own semi-annual conventions, including one scheduled for late June in San Diego. That convention will bring together dozens of millionaire and billionaire conservatives, who will write big checks for the Koch efforts. Additionally, the Kochs will unveil their new voter database, Themis (see April 2010 and After), which they expect will help in targeting potential Republican voters around the country. Themis played a big part in a recent successful effort to stop Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) from being recalled, as did huge amounts of Koch-organized donations on behalf of Walker. Three of the prime figures in the Koch efforts are convention “emcee” Kevin Gentry and political operatives Marc Short and Tim Phillips (see May 29, 2009); the operation is orchestrated primarily by Koch advisor and operative Richard Fink. Additionally, the Koch brothers intend to take over the Cato Institute think tank (see February 29, 2012) and make it more politically active. Minnesota television station owner Stanley Hubbard, a longtime Koch supporter, says: “They ask for support—and they get it because we all love our country and we have a different vision than do the liberals. I’ve gotten friends to be involved, and I think others have, too, so I would guess, yes, that’s expanding.” Vogel and Parti expand on how secretive the Koch network (which they call “Koch World”) actually is. They are unable to find out where the San Diego convention is to be held, though they did determine that it is scheduled to take place over the weekend of June 23. A Republican who has worked with Koch-backed groups says: “The Koch groups are very complex in the way they do things. They’re difficult to penetrate from the outside, which is smart. You often need a Sherpa.” The conventions are heavily patrolled by hired security guards, who at one recent convention threw out a Politico reporter under threat of arrest. Participants are required not to discuss the convention with outsiders, including making posts on Facebook or Web blogs. (The winter 2011 convention in Rancho Mirage, California, leaked to the press, sparking what Politico calls “raucous protests” outside the exclusive resort hosting the conference.) According to Vogel and Parti, Phillips runs the lobbying organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP—see Late 2004 and November 2009). Short oversees the spending of Koch network monies by other approved groups, some of which air television ads attacking Democrats. Gentry raises money for the Koch network. Gentry often uses urgent and even apocalyptic rhetoric in his fundraising appeals, warning potential donors of “dangerous and imminent threats” to American society and comparing the Koch conventions to the Continental Congress of 1776. One recent email lauded efforts by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to help the Koch brothers’ fundraising. Gentry also spearheads the fundraising efforts for an informal network of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, AFP, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Some conservatives are uncomfortable with the Koch brothers’ attempts to gain dominance in conservative party politics. “Koch has been angling for the last three or four years to consolidate more of the conservative movement within their network,” says one conservative operative. “That’s why they do these seminars—to try to consolidate more big donors’ money and direct it into their projects.” The operative admits that the Koch fundraising efforts are very effective, saying, “Some of the donors believe giving to one source makes it easier for them instead of having to give to a dozen different places, and others just want to come out to hang with the billionaire brothers and be part of a very elite universe.” Koch conventions regularly feature prominent conservatives like Thomas and fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Texas Governor Rick Perry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Virginia Governor Bob McConnell, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and right-wing radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. While federal documents track some $120 million in donations from recent Koch summit donors, most of the money raised and spent goes untracked, instead being hidden away by “nonprofit” groups that purport to be non-political social advocacy groups. Gentry has assured donors, “There is anonymity that we can protect.” (Vogel and Parti 6/15/2012)
Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike