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The Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, filed by Senator James L. Buckley (R-NY) and former Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-WI) against the Secretary of the Senate, Francis R. Valeo, challenges the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) on free-speech grounds. The suit also named the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as a defendant. A federal appeals court validated almost all of FECA, and the plaintiffs sent the case to the Supreme Court. The Court upholds the contribution limits set by FECA because those limits help to safeguard the integrity of elections. However, the court overrules the limits set on campaign expenditures, ruling: “It is clear that a primary effect of these expenditure limitations is to restrict the quantity of campaign speech by individuals, groups, and candidates. The restrictions… limit political expression at the core of our electoral process and of First Amendment freedoms.” One of the most important aspects of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that financial contributions to political campaigns can be considered expressions of free speech, thereby allowing individuals to essentially make unrestricted donations. The Court implies that expenditure limits on publicly funded candidates are allowable under the Constitution, because presidential candidates may disregard the limits by rejecting public financing (the Court will affirm this stance in a challenge brought by the Republican National Committee in 1980).
Provisions of 'Buckley' - The Court finds the following provisions constitutional:
Limitations on contributions to candidates for federal office;
Disclosure and record-keeping provisions; and
The public financing of presidential elections.
However, the Court finds these provisions unconstitutional:
Limitations on expenditures by candidates and their committees, except for presidential candidates who accept public funding;
The $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures;
The limitations on expenditures by candidates from their personal funds; and
The method of appointing members of the FEC, holding that as the method stands, it violates the principle of separation of powers.
In May 1976, following the Court’s ruling, the FEC will reconstitute its board with six presidential appointees after Senate confirmation. (Federal Elections Commission 3/1997; Federal Elections Commission 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ; Casebriefs 2012)
No Clear Authors - The opinion is labeled per curiam, a term usually reserved for brief and minor Court decisions when authorship of an opinion is less relevant. It is unclear exactly which Justices write the opinion. Most Court observers believe Justice William Brennan writes the bulk of the opinion, but Brennan’s biographers will later note that sections of the opinion are authored by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Potter Stewart, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. The opinion is an amalgamation of multiple authors, reflecting the several compromises made in the resolution of the decision. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Criticism of 'Buckley' - Critics claim that the ruling enshrines the principle of “money equals speech.” The ruling also says that television and radio advertisements that do not expressly attack an individual candidate can be paid for with “unregulated” funds. This leads organizations to begin airing “attack ads” that masquerade as “issue ads,” ostensibly promoting or opposing a particular social or political issue and avoiding such words as “elect” or “defeat.” (National Public Radio 2012) In 1999, law professor Burt Neuborne will write: “Buckley is like a rotten tree. Give it a good, hard push and, like a rotten tree, Buckley will keel over. The only question is in which direction.” Neuborne will write that his preference goes towards reasonable federal regulations of spending and contributions, but “any change would be welcome” in lieu of this decision, and even a completely deregulated system would be preferable to Buckley’s legal and intellectual incoherence. (Liptak 5/3/2010) In 2011, law professor Richard Hasen will note that while the Buckley decision codifies the idea that contributions are a form of free speech, it also sets strict limitations on those contributions. Calling the decision “Solomonic,” Hasen will write that the Court “split the baby, upholding the contribution limits but striking down the independent spending limit as a violation of the First Amendment protections of free speech and association.” Hasen will reflect: “Buckley set the main parameters for judging the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions for a generation. Contribution limits imposed only a marginal restriction on speech, because the most important thing about a contribution is the symbolic act of contributing, not the amount. Further, contribution limits could advance the government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. The Court upheld Congress’ new contribution limits. It was a different story with spending limits, which the Court said were a direct restriction on speech going to the core of the First Amendment. Finding no evidence in the record then that independent spending could corrupt candidates, the Court applied a tough ‘strict scrutiny’ standard of review and struck down the limits.” (Hasen 10/25/2011) In 2012, reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin will call it “one of the Supreme Court’s most complicated, contradictory, incomprehensible (and longest) opinions.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) issues a series of “voter guides” just before Election Day. The pamphlets are later credited as helping persuade voters to cast their ballots for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (R-CA) and a number of Republican Senate candidates. In 2012, reporter Jeffrey Toobin will characterize them as “barely concealed works of advocacy,” a form of “electioneering” that federal law bans groups such as NRLC from issuing this close to an election. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) later tries to challenge the pamphlet distribution, and the NRLC wins a First Amendment challenge in court under the legal leadership of general counsel James Bopp Jr. As a result of the court case, Bopp becomes interested in challenging campaign finance restrictions (see January 10-16, 2008) as well as abortion rights. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The US Justice Department names Joseph H. Hartzler, an Assistant US Attorney in Springfield, Illinois, to lead its prosecution of accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, April 21, 1995, and May 16, 1995). Attorney General Janet Reno has moved Merrick Garland, who oversaw the initial phase of the bombing investigation, back to Washington to head the Justice Department’s criminal division. She creates what becomes known as the OKBOMB task force, a trial team focusing on continued investigation and the prosecution of McVeigh and his alleged accomplice, Terry Nichols. Reno selects Hartzler from dozens of resumes submitted by government lawyers from around the country. In the 1980s, Hartzler, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound, helped convict four Puerto Rican nationalists accused in a bombing plot, and helped prosecute a federal judge in Chicago, in what became known as the “Greylord investigation.” He has worked as the chief of both the criminal and civil divisions in Chicago, one of the country’s largest US Attorney’s offices. Arlene Joplin, an Oklahoma City prosecutor, will remain on Hartzler’s prosecution team. Justice officials say that Hartzler was chosen because of several factors, including his background in complex criminal cases, terrorist prosecutions, and his ability to work with other government lawyers already on the case. Hartzler is asked by a criminal defense attorney not involved in the case what he thinks about it. Hartzler responds: “Whoever did this should spend some time in hell. I just want to accelerate the process.” Hartzler vows to have no press conferences, and will in fact have very few, though his team does have a few media “favorites,” most notably Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker and a legal analyst for ABC News who once worked with two of the OKBOMB staffers and is considered a supporter of the prosecution. (Johnston 5/22/1995; Serrano 1998, pp. 249-250) Missouri criminal defense lawyer Michael B. Metnick will later say of Hartzler: “His integrity is beyond reproach. He’s a prosecutor I can turn my back on.” Hartzler will tell a reporter that he asked for the McVeigh prosecution because “I thought I could make a difference.” (Terry 6/2/1997)
Legal and media analysts say the trial of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997) never captured the public’s attention the way some other trials have in recent years. “Maybe it was the absence of cameras in the courtroom,” writes the New York Times’s Bill Dedman. “Maybe the outcome never seemed in doubt. Maybe it was the numerousness of the victims or the nobodyness of the defendant or the mind-numbing horror of the event.” Dedman compares the public interest in the McVeigh trial to the far more sensational, media-saturated trials of acquitted murder suspect O.J. Simpson and the Los Angeles police officers acquitted of beating motorist Rodney King. The McVeigh trial did not attract anywhere near the media and public interest of those two trials, Dedman asserts, based on numerous polls and focus group studies. The McVeigh trial did not even garner the same level of interest as the Oliver North Iran-Contra trial (see July 7-10, 1987 and May-June, 1989). Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst for ABC News who wrote a best-selling book on the Simpson case, says: “It’s not that people are uninterested in this story. It’s just that it’s just another story. I’m certainly not writing a book about the McVeigh case.” Polls show that 30 percent of Americans followed the McVeigh case “very closely,” a number not significantly higher than the interest showed in most big news stories, and far lower than the public interest in the Simpson and King trials. Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, says: “There is not the manic interest there was in O.J. at certain points in time. I don’t think people are swept up in the emotion of this. That’s for sure.” Merrill Brown of MSNBC’s Internet news service calls the McVeigh trial one of “the top half-dozen” stories he could recall in the network’s Internet news coverage. “It has not changed people’s lives, like the Simpson case,” Brown says. “It has not reached into the nation’s consciousness like Rodney King or William Kennedy Smith [a member of the Kennedy family accused of rape] or any trial that received national notoriety as a result of cameras.” Most media news outlets covered the McVeigh trial steadily, but with few pre-emptions and special reports. Neither Time nor Newsweek featured the trial as a cover story, and supermarket tabloids paid little attention to the trial. The most obvious reason for the relative lack of media coverage is the lack of cameras in the courtroom. Dedman writes: “As a result, people never got to scrutinize the witnesses’ demeanor, study the prosecutor’s hair style and wardrobe, hear the judge’s voice, watch the lawyers bicker, see the defendant react—all those things that… turned the Simpson case from a trial into a drama.” Media psychology professor Stuart Fischoff says: “I think America has very quickly adapted to a sense of judicial activities as entertainment. [Americans now] expect to see their trials on television” so they can become “hooked.” The trial also lacked the salacious and controversial elements of other trials: unlike the Simpson case, there was virtually no sexual content, nor was there the overt racism that permeated the King trial. And unlike Simpson and Smith, no celebrities or wealthy persons were involved. Fischoff says of McVeigh: “There’s nothing particularly interesting about him. He’s not particularly handsome, he’s not particularly verbal, he’s not particularly horrible. He’s not [convicted serial killer and cannibal] Jeffrey Dahmer; you really can’t love to hate this guy. There’s no Darth Vader quotient.” And though the victims evoked considerable sympathy among Americans, they did not evoke fascination such as the victims in the Simpson murders. Observers such as CNN’s Greta van Susteren have said the victims’ stories were just too painful to contemplate for long; others have said there were too many victims for Americans to focus upon. (Scott 6/4/1997)
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).
Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says he is “shocked” and “appalled” by the apparent perjury of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to Congress. Gonzales testified (see July 24, 2007) under oath about a 2004 visit to a hospitalized John Ashcroft by himself and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card to pressure Ashcroft, then the attorney general, to overrule the acting attorney general, James Comey, and reauthorize the National Security Agency’s domestic wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005). Toobin says of Gonzales’s apparent perjury, “You know, it’s our job to be jaded and not to be shocked. But I’m shocked. I mean, this is such an appalling set of circumstances. And the Justice Department is full of the most honorable, decent, skilled lawyers in the country. And to be led by someone who is so repudiated by members of both parties is, frankly, just shocking.” Toobin explains the nature of Gonzales’s alleged lies: when Gonzales was first asked, under oath, if there was any dispute among Justice Department and White House officials over the NSA program, he denied any such debates had taken place (see May 16, 2007). But months later, Comey testified (see May 15, 2007) that there was so much dissension in the Justice Department concerning the program that the attempt to pressure the ailing Ashcroft to reauthorize the program brought the dissent to a head: Comey, Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, and other officials threatened to resign if the program was not brought into line. Comey flatly contradicted Gonzales’s version of events. (Weeks from now, Mueller will release five pages of his own notes from that 2004 hospital meeting that will confirm Comey’s veracity; see August 16, 2007.) After Comey’s testimony called Gonzales’s truthfulness into question, Gonzales changed his story. He told his Congressional questioners that there were in fact two different programs that were being discussed at Ashcroft’s bedside, one controversial and the other not. Mueller has also testified that there is only one program causing such dispute: the NSA warrantless surveillance program. Toobin says, “So, this week, what happened was, the Senators said, well, what do you mean? How could you say it was uncontroversial, when there was this gigantic controversy? And Gonzales said, oh, no, no, no, we’re talking about two different programs. One was controversial. One wasn’t. But Mueller said today it was all just one program, and Gonzales, by implication, is not telling the truth.” The White House contends that the apparent contradiction of Gonzales’s varying statements is explained by the fact that all such surveillance programs are so highly classified that Gonzales cannot go into enough detail about the various programs to explain his “confusing” testimony. But Toobin disputes that explanation: “Mueller didn’t seem confused. No one seems confused, except Alberto Gonzales.” (CNN 7/26/2007; Edwards and Menaker 7/27/2007)
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).
The second round of arguments in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, and June 29, 2009) is heard by the US Supreme Court. The first round of arguments, which unexpectedly focused on an unplanned examination of government censorship, ended in a 5-4 split, with the majority of conservative justices readying a decision to essentially gut the entire body of federal campaign finance law in the name of the First Amendment (see March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), but an angry dissent by Justice David Souter that accused Chief Justice John Roberts of failing to follow the procedures of the Court in rendering the opinion prompted Roberts to temporarily withdraw the opinion and offer a rare second argument (see May 14, 2012). Newly appointed Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues her first case before the Court. Citizens United, the plaintiff, is represented by former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, a veteran of Court arguments, quickly discerns from the new round of “Questions Presented” that the Court is prepared to not only find in the plaintiff’s favor, but to use the case to render a broad verdict against campaign finance law as a whole. Olson argues cautiously, not wanting to extend the case farther than the Court may desire. The four minority liberal justices, knowing the case is lost, try their best in their questioning to raise awareness in the public once news reports of the arguments are made public. One of those justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, asks: “Mr. Olson, are you taking the position that there is no difference” between the First Amendment rights of a corporation and those of an individual? “A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights. So is there any distinction that Congress could draw between corporations and natural human beings for purposes of campaign finance?” Olson replies, “What the Court has said in the First Amendment context… over and over again is that corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment” (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). Ginsburg follows up by asking, “Would that include today’s mega-corporations, where many of the investors may be foreign individuals or entities?” Olson replies, “The Court in the past has made no distinction based upon the nature of the entity that might own a share of a corporation.” Kagan then takes her turn, and begins: “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, I have three very quick points to make about the government position. The first is that this issue has a long history. For over a hundred years, Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections, and this Court has never questioned that judgment.” She begins to make her second point before Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the conservative majority, interrupts her. In 2012, author and reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write that Kagan almost certainly knows hers is a legal “suicide mission,” and can only hope that her arguments may sway the Court to narrow its decision and leave some of the existing body of campaign finance law intact. She tells Roberts later in the questioning period, “Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses, if it has to lose, the answer is yes.” Justice John Paul Stevens, the most senior of the liberal minority, attempts to assist Kagan in making her argument, suggesting that the Court should content itself with a narrow ruling, perhaps creating an exception in the McCain-Feingold law (see March 27, 2002) for the plaintiff’s documentary (see January 10-16, 2008) or for “ads that are financed exclusively by individuals even though they are sponsored by a corporation.” Kagan agrees with Stevens’s proposal. Stevens then says: “Nobody has explained why that wouldn’t be a proper solution, not nearly as drastic. Why is that not the wisest narrow solution of the problem before us?” Kagan, with help from Ginsburg, undoes some of the damage done by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart during the first argument, where he inadvertently gave the conservative justices the “censorship” argument by which they could justify a broader verdict. Ginsburg asks: “May I ask you one question that was highlighted in the prior argument, and that was if Congress could say no TV and radio ads, could it also say no newspaper ads, no campaign biographies? Last time, the answer was yes, Congress could, but it didn’t. Is that still the government’s answer?” Kagan replies: “The government’s answer has changed, Justice Ginsburg. We took the Court’s own reaction to some of those other hypotheticals very seriously. We went back, we considered the matter carefully.” Unlike Stewart, Kagan specifically says that the government cannot ban books. But the censorship argument remains. After the arguments, the justices render the same verdict: a 5-4 split favoring Citizens United. Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas vote in the majority, while Ginsburg, Stevens, and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor vote in the minority. The second round of questioning, with its much broader scope, gives Roberts and his conservative colleagues the justification they need to render a broad verdict that would gut existing campaign finance law (see January 21, 2010). (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The 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)
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)
Writing for the Atlantic Wire, John Hudson notes the angry draft dissent penned by retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter in the process of the Citizens United decision that accused Chief Justice John Roberts “of engineering the outcome of the” case, as revealed in a New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin (see May 14, 2012). Hudson says that while many people would be interested in Souter’s unpublished dissent, they will not be able to read it any time soon. Souter has donated all of his Court documents to the New Hampshire Historical Society, where they will remain closed for 50 years. Law professor Richard Hasen makes a similar observation on his Election Law Blog. He also notes that Toobin’s account verifies much of his previous speculation as to why the Court chose to re-argue the case rather than issue an opinion after the first set of arguments (see March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009)—Roberts and the other conservatives wanted to establish a clear guideline in the arguments for overturning campaign finance law. Hasen writes, “Perhaps one day in my lifetime some justice’s papers (but not Justice Souter’s) will reveal Justice Souter’s draft dissent.” (Hudson 5/14/2012; Rick Hasen 5/14/2012) Two days later, Hasen writes a column urging Souter, or another justice such as the also-retired John Paul Stevens, to release Souter’s draft dissent, even as he concedes such an event is unlikely to happen. Hasen says that Souter’s dissent may cast light on the pending Supreme Court decision over the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to “thumb… its nose at Citizens United by holding that Montana could bar corporate money from elections, given the state’s history of corruption” (see April 30, 2012). Hasen says although it is all but certain the Court will reverse the Montana high court’s decision, “Justice Souter was one of the Court’s most passionate and articulate thinkers about campaign finance, and his dissent in Citizens United likely makes a top-notch argument for the constitutionality of corporate spending limits—an argument that’s directly relevant to the Montana case. Airing his dissent could help arguments against Citizens United we already have, in the published dissent of Justice Stevens, which is somewhat meandering and ineffective—not one of his best. Souter’s retirement is no reason for him to keep quiet.… Justice Souter cares deeply about campaign finance—why not make this his continuing cause?” Hasen continues: “The Souter opinion also might reveal just how far the conservative justices on the Supreme Court were willing to go to reach out and grab Citizens United. The Court is decidedly not a place in which justice-umpires simply call balls and strikes, and Souter could remind us of that in the run-up to June’s rulings on health care reform and Arizona’s immigration law. Better to have a clear understanding of how ideology plays into some of the Court’s decisions than to preserve an illusion of pure lawyerly analysis.” Hasen concludes that releasing the dissent “isn’t about airing the Court’s dirty laundry. It’s about telling the truth about how the Court handed down Citizens United and making the best argument for why it should be overturned—and that would be a real public service.” (Hasen 5/16/2012)
Ed Whelan of the conservative National Review is highly critical of a recent article by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin about the internal decision-making process behind the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010 and May 14, 2012). Elements of Toobin’s narrative have already been questioned by law professors Thomas Goldstein and Jonathan Adler (see May 14, 2012), though both professors are generally supportive of the article and recommend it for reading. In his first article, Whelan writes that the evidence “doesn’t support his thesis,” and promises a followup article that addresses “some of Toobin’s wild distortions about” the decision, including what he calls Toobin’s “baseless libel” against Chief Justice John Roberts, referencing Toobin’s implication that Roberts engineered the sweeping campaign finance reform of the decision in order to aid Republican candidates. Whelan interprets Toobin’s evidence to say that it shows Justice Anthony Kennedy, not Roberts, enlarged the scope of the Citizens United decision; however, Whelan believes neither interpretation. Some of Toobin’s interpretation of events hinges on a draft dissent penned by Justice David Souter that was withdrawn after Roberts agreed to let the case be re-argued (see June 29, 2009 and September 9, 2009). Whelan implies that he doubts the existence of such a dissent, an implication that cannot be disproven, as Souter sealed his Court records after his retirement (see May 14-16, 2012). If the dissent does exist, Whelan doubts that Toobin has read it. He concludes by casting aspersions on Toobin’s assertion that Roberts engineered the results of the decision “without leaving his own fingerprints.” Roberts cast the deciding vote in the 5-4 split, Whelan notes, and adds that Roberts did not entirely escape criticism for the ruling after it was issued. (Whelan 5/15/2012)
Part Two - The next day, Whelan publishes the second part of the article, and condemns Toobin for asserting that Roberts crafted the decision with the intention of helping Republican candidates in upcoming elections. He calls the assertion “scurrilous,” and says Toobin presents “not an iota of evidence” for the claim. Whelan then writes that no evidence exists to show that the decision has helped Republican candidates more than Democrats (see November 1, 2010 and January 21, 2012), apparently ignoring two years’ worth of evidence showing that in the wake of decisions, outside funding of Republican candidates has swamped Democrats’ efforts to retain parity (see August 2, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, October 30, 2010, Mid-November 2010, January 26, 2011 and After, March 2011, (May 4, 2011), May 5, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 8, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 6, 2012, January 23, 2012, February 6, 2012, February 9, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 9, 2012, March 26, 2012, Late March 2012, April 13-20, 2012, April 22, 2012, and May 2, 2012). He cites an article by Weekly Standard contributor Andrew Ferguson that denies the “rich and powerful” donate more to Republicans than Democrats, where the only “evidence” Ferguson cited was his assertion that “Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich. Only Democrats seem not to realize this.” (Whelan 5/16/2012)
Final Thoughts - Whelan’s final article on the subject approvingly cites an equally negative critique of the Toobin article from Weekly Standard writer Adam White (see May 17, 2012), and insults law professor Richard Hasen’s perspective on the matter (see May 14-16, 2012); after noting that Hasen is a “[l]aw professor and election-law expert,” Whelan advises Hasen to read White’s column more closely. He also derides the idea that the Souter dissent is “secret,” noting that it would have been circulated among the other eight justices, and Justice John Paul Stevens would have had it available to him for his own published dissent. He then quotes Hasen’s critique of Stevens’s “somewhat meandering and ineffective” dissent, turns the phrasing around to insult Souter’s writing style, and says that Souter’s dissent may “reflect… too much of Souter’s draft dissent.” In attacking Hasen’s request for Souter to release the dissent, he contradicts himself by noting that the dissent is “confidential case information” that should remain out of public view. (Whelan 5/17/2012)
Columnist Adam White, writing for the conservative Weekly Standard, lambasts a recent article by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin about the internal decision-making process behind the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010 and May 14, 2012). Most publications describe the decision as allowing corporations and labor unions to spend money freely in campaigns, but White defines it differently, calling it an affirmation of “a corporation’s First Amendment right to spend money on independent speech on political issues, even when that speech criticizes candidates for office” (see January 21, 2010, January 22, 2010, and February 2, 2010). Law professors Tom Goldstein and Jonathan Adler have found some “spin” in Toobin’s account of events (see May 14, 2012), and law professor Richard Hasen has asked that a draft dissent highly critical of the decision and its methodology be made public to shed light on Toobin’s narrative (see May 14-16, 2012). However, White goes significantly further than any of the professors in tarring Toobin’s article, and in some instances Toobin himself. White writes flatly that everyone outside of “Toobin’s base,” presumably meaning liberals who comprise “Chief Justice [John] Roberts’s critics,” is “skeptical” of the article, and cites Goldstein and National Review columnist Ed Whelan (see May 15-17, 2012) as examples of those presumed skeptics who have “poured cold water” on the story. According to White, Toobin “front-load[ed] his story with easily disprovable mischaracterizations of the case” that [e]ven a cursory review of the case’s briefs, and contemporary news coverage, disproves Toobin’s thesis” of Roberts using a narrowly drawn case to revamp and invalidate most of US campaign finance law. White writes that Toobin’s characterization of the narrow focus of the case is wrong: “The First Amendment stakes were well known, and much discussed, in the run-up to oral argument.” He cites the New York Times editorial published at the time of the first arguments, in March 2009 (see March 23, 2009), warning that if the Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, “it would create an enormous loophole in the law and allow corporate money to flood into partisan politics in ways it has not in many decades. It also would seriously erode the disclosure rules for campaign contributions.” He also notes that respected court reporter Lyle Denniston warned before the oral arguments that the Citizens United case threatened to deliver “a sweeping rejection of Congressional authority to regulate campaign spending by corporations.” Toobin himself made some of the same arguments on CNN the day of the arguments, White notes. He calls Toobin’s version of events in the article a “clumsy fictionalization of the case” designed to vilify Roberts. He also questions Toobin’s characterization of the first arguments from Citizens United (CU) lawyer Theodore Olson, going considerably further than either Goldstein or Adler in accusing Toobin of fundamentally misrepresenting Olson’s original, narrowly focused case. According to White, Olson’s opening argument claimed that the restriction being challenged by CU was “unconstitutional as applied to the distribution of Citizens United’s documentary film through video on demand… [it] plainly exceeds Congress’s sharply limited authority to abridge the freedom of speech.” White claims that Olson cited First Amendment grounds in a portion of the arguments not reported by Toobin, and quotes from Olson’s argument; that quote describes Olson’s citation of the 2007 case Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL—see Mid-2004 and After and June 25, 2007), which indeed used First Amendment grounds for its successful positioning, and quotes Olson as saying the WRTL decision “errs on the side of permitting the speech, not prohibiting the speech.” White accuses Toobin of deliberately misrepresenting Olson’s argument to “advanc[e] his own anti-Roberts narrative.” White is unable to check the accuracy of Toobin’s behind-the-scenes narrative, as Toobin’s sources are not revealed in the article, but White is “skeptical,” writing, “Given Toobin’s inability of accurately handling straightforward, easily confirmable facts, why should anyone take at face value Toobin’s description of the justices’ private discussions, and their draft opinions—especially when Toobin only describes, never quotes, those deliberations or draft opinions?” Like Adler, Toobin questions the ethics of the person or persons at the Court who “leaked” the story to Toobin. (White 5/17/2012)
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