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The Supreme Court rules in INS v. Chadha that Congress has no right to issue what it calls “legislative vetoes,” essentially provisions passed by Congress giving the executive branch specific powers but with Congress reserving the right to veto specific decisions by the executive branch if it does not approve of the decisions made by the executive. Congress had relied on such “legislative vetoes” for years to curb the expanding power of the president. The Court strikes down hundreds of these “legislative vetoes” throughout federal law. Congress quickly schedules hearings to decide how to respond to the Court’s ruling. White House attorney John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), a young, fast-rising conservative, is one of a team of lawyers assigned to review the administration’s upcoming testimony before Congress. Some of the lawyers want to push Congress to place independent agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under White House control—part of the evolving “unitary executive” theory of presidential power (see April 30, 1986). Roberts writes: “With respect to independent agencies… the time may be ripe to reconsider the existence of such entities, and take action to bring them back within the executive branch.… I agree that the time is ripe to reconsider the Constitutional anomaly of independent agencies… More timid souls may, however, desire to see this deleted as provocative.” (Savage 2007, pp. 256-257)
Young White House attorney John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), an advocate of expanded presidential powers (see June-July 1983), is selected to respond to a letter from retired Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. The former justice is commenting on the Reagan administration’s decision to unilaterally invade the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada. Goldberg wrote that President Reagan probably did violate the Constitution by sending troops to Grenada without Congressional approval, and in that sense has left himself open to impeachment. However, he added, the invasion had succeeded in establishing democracy in that nation. Therefore Reagan’s actions should be compared to those of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, because, like Lincoln, he “acted in good faith and in the belief that this served our national interest” (see April 12 - July 1861). Drafting the letter for Reagan’s signature, Roberts thanks Goldberg for his defense of Reagan but insists that the invasion was perfectly legal. The president, Roberts writes, has “inherent authority in international affairs to defend American lives and interests and, as commander in chief, to use the military when necessary in discharging these responsibilities.” (Savage 2007, pp. 257)
Young conservative White House lawyer John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), an advocate of expanded presidential powers (see June-July 1983 and October 1983), advises senior Reagan officials that the White House should challenge the 1978 Presidential Records Act. To Roberts’s mind, the law goes much too far in requiring that presidential papers be considered government property and should, with some exceptions, be released to the public 12 years after a president leaves office. The law infringes on the right of a president to keep information secret, Roberts argues. Later, he will argue that the 12-year rule is far too brief and, as it would “inhibit the free flow of candid advice and recommendations within the White House,” is unconstitutional. (Savage 2007, pp. 258)
Young conservative White House lawyer John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), an advocate of expanded presidential powers (see June-July 1983 and October 1983), expands on his previous argument that the president’s papers and documents should remain secret and unavailable to the public (see February 13, 1984). Roberts writes that the Reagan administration should oppose a bill pending in Congress that would make the National Archives a separate agency, independent of the White House. Roberts writes that the “legislation could grant the archivist [the head of the National Archives] some independence from presidential control, with all the momentous constitutional consequences that would entail.” Others in the White House disagree with Roberts, and the administration does not oppose the bill. Roberts suggests that President Reagan attach a signing statement to the bill making it clear that Reagan has the power to fire the archivist if he/she tries to disobey the White House in releasing a presidential document. (Savage 2007, pp. 258)
Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (see September 26, 1986), 80, dies after a ten-month battle with thyroid cancer. He will be replaced by John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), who formerly clerked for him. Rehnquist’s term as Chief Justice marked a “sea change” in the direction of the Court. Former Clinton solicitor general Walter Dellinger says: “It is quite clear that there are three dominant chief justices of American history, and they are John Marshall, Earl Warren, and William H. Rehnquist. I think that there’s just no question that he’s of enormous historical importance.” Conservative law professor and former Reagan Justice Department official Douglas Kmiec, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, says that Rehnquist presided over a “sea change” in the Court, taking it sharply to the right. (Neary 7/20/2005; Mauro 9/5/2005; Dean 2007, pp. 129-137)
John Roberts is approved by the Senate to become the new chief justice of the US Supreme Court, replacing the recently deceased William Rehnquist (see September 5, 2005). Roberts, who once clerked for Rehnquist while Rehnquist was an associate justice, also served in the Reagan Justice Department and as an associate counsel to then-President Reagan. He was deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration. George W. Bush appointed him to the DC Circuit Court in 2001. (White House 9/29/2005) Roberts was originally nominated to succeed the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor, but when Rehnquist died, Bush quickly withdrew the nomination for associate justice and refiled Roberts’s name for chief justice.
Characteristics and History - Roberts appeals to conservatives for a number of reasons; he has a powerful legal intellect, is soft-spoken, personable, and telegenic, and has not been outspoken about his views on issues like abortion and the right to privacy. Law professor Stephen Wermiel, who knows Roberts well, said in July that Roberts is not “somebody who… comes off as gruff or overbearing, which some people will recall was a factor in the [Robert] Bork hearings in 1987” (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Wermiel called Roberts’s nomination “a stroke of brilliance on the White House’s part.” One area of controversy surrounds Roberts’s work with Governor Jeb Bush of Florida during the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election, where Roberts helped construct the strategies used in the Bush v. Gore case that awarded George W. Bush the presidency. Another is Roberts’s membership in the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative activist judges, lawyers, and legal thinkers. A third is his advocacy, during his time with the first Bush administration, for scrapping decades of law providing for the separation of church and state in order to allow prayer in public schools. (Neary 7/20/2005) Four days before President Bush nominated him to the Court, Roberts voted in favor of upholding the Bush administration’s assertions about its wartime powers in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), ruling that Bush need not consult Congress before setting up military commissions, and ruling that Bush is not bound by the strictures of the Geneva Convention. Liberals are unhappy with his stance against abortion, his representation as a private attorney of corporate mining interests seeking to dodge environmental regulations and of businesses trying to evade affirmative action requirements, as well as his attempts to curb environmentalists’ efforts to save endangered species. In 2007, reporter Charlie Savage will write that while progressives and liberals busily attacked Roberts for his positions on various “hot-button” issues, “[a]lmost lost amid the hubbub was” Roberts’s “unwavering commitment to the [expansion of] presidential power,” dating back to his 1980-81 clerkship under Rehnquist and his tenure as a White House lawyer under Ronald Reagan (see June-July 1983, October 1983, February 13, 1984, and May 16, 1984). (Savage 2007, pp. 251-255)
Quick Confirmation - The Senate agreed to expedite Roberts’s confirmation process in order to allow him to preside over the next session of the Supreme Court in October, and so gave its members little time to peruse his record. Roberts sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, and is confirmed by a 78-22 vote. Roberts hit a brief snag when he divulged that he had met with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales just six days before hearing oral arguments in the Hamdan case, had met with Vice President Cheney and a select coterie of top White House officials while considering his verdict, and had met with Bush for the president’s final approval on the Court nomination the same day that he handed down his favorable ruling. Though 22 Democrats vote against his confirmation, because Roberts’s ascension to the Court does not change the ideological balance among the nine justices (Roberts is replacing the equally conservative Rehnquist), Senate Democrats decided not to filibuster his nomination. (Dean 2007, pp. 154-155; Savage 2007, pp. 252)
After President Bush successfully places conservative judge John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court (see September 29, 2005), he names White House counsel and personal friend Harriet Miers to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court.
Firestorm of Criticism - The media reacts adversely to this; Miers is said to be insufficiently qualified for the position and to have been chosen because of her loyalty to Bush. Her nomination is further derailed by opposition from hard-line conservatives, who do not believe she is conservative enough in her beliefs, particularly on abortion. Miers is certainly a weak choice from most viewpoints—she has no constitutional law experience and lacks a reputation as a strong legal thinker. She has never been a judge, nor even published an academic law journal article. Even conservative stalwart Robert Bork, who is still a center of controversy from his failed Court nomination (see July 1-October 23, 1987), calls Miers’s nomination “a disaster on every level.” When a letter Miers had written Bush for his birthday in 1997 is published in the media—in which Miers gushed over Bush in breathless, almost schoolgirlish prose, calling him “cool!” and “the best governor ever!”—the derision hits a fever pitch. When she submits a questionnaire to the Senate Judiciary Committee listing her background and qualifications for the job, a questionnaire almost devoid of pertinent and specific information, the ranking members of the committee threaten to have her do it over, a humiliation she avoids by withdrawing her name from consideration.
Trumped-Up Dispute over Executive Privilege - The Senate asks to see Miers’s White House memos to judge the quality of her legal work, and the White House refuses, citing executive privilege. Many view the dispute as a trumped-up conflict designed to allow the Bush administration to save what little face it can in the debacle; neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer had suggested engineering just such a “conflict” to stage “irreconcilable differences over documents” that would allow the Bush White House to withdraw Miers’s nomination over the issue.
Withdrawal - Miers indeed asks Bush to withdraw her nomination, and Bush cites the documents dispute in announcing the decision to pull Miers from consideration: “It is clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House—disclosures that would undermine a president’s ability to receive candid counsel,” Bush says. “Harriet Miers’s decision demonstrates her deep respect for this essential aspect of the Constitutional separation of powers—and confirms my deep respect and admiration for her.” Bush settles on another nominee, Samuel Alito, to replace O’Connor (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006). (Savage 2007, pp. 262-266; Dean 2007, pp. 155)
Staunch Advocate for Expanded Executive Power - In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write that, in his view, the Bush administration chose Miers for a simple reason: she is a staunch advocate for the continued expansion of presidential power. “Miers… could be counted on to embrace Bush’s expansive view of presidential powers,” he will write. Miers is quite loyal to Bush “and, through him, the institution he represented.” Miers’s adoration of Bush on a personal level would further guarantee her “solid support for any presidential claim of power that might come before the Court,” he will write. “Like Roberts before her, she was an executive branch lawyer who identified with the task of defending the prerogatives of the president.” On the questionnaire she submits to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Miers writes that as White House counsel, she has gained significant constitutional experience in “presidential prerogatives, the separation of powers, executive authority, and the constitutionality of proposed regulations and statutes.… My time serving in the White House, particularly as counsel to the president, has given me a fuller appreciation of the role of the separation of powers in maintaining our constitutional system. In that role, I have frequently dealt with matters concerning the nature and role of the executive power.” (Savage 2007, pp. 265-267)
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)
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (see September 29, 2005) has his first opportunity to name a judge to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Judge James Robertson has resigned from the court in protest of the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see December 21, 2005). Roberts chooses as his replacement Judge Robert Bates, who voted to dismiss the General Accounting Office’s lawsuit attempting to force Vice President Cheney to release documents surrounding his energy task force (see May 10, 2005). (Savage 2007, pp. 262)
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)
As reported by progressive media watchdog Media Matters, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh distorts and misstates comments by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama from 2001, asking listeners how Obama can be sworn in as president if he “flatly rejected” the Constitution. Limbaugh tells his listeners that Obama “calls himself a constitutional professor or a constitutional scholar. In truth, Barack Obama was an anti-constitutional professor. He studied the Constitution, and he flatly rejected it. He doesn’t like the Constitution, he thinks it is flawed, and now I understand why he was so reluctant to wear the American flag lapel pin. Why would he?… I don’t see how he can take the oath of office” because “[h]e has rejected the Constitution.” Obama said during a September 6, 2001 panel discussion on Chicago’s WBEZ radio that the Constitution “reflected the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day.” Obama’s criticism was directed at the Founding Fathers’ handling of the issue of slavery in the Constitution. Later in the discussion, Obama said that the Constitution is “a remarkable political document that paved the way for where we are now.” Limbaugh plays carefully edited clips from the WBEZ program but does not play the larger portion of Obama’s remarks that give a fuller picture of his meaning. Instead, he falsely accuses Obama of saying that the Constitution cannot “be fixed,” and asks: “How is he going to… how is he gonna place his hand on the Bible and swear that he, Barack Hussein Obama, will uphold the Constitution that he feels reflects the nation’s fundamental flaw. Fundamental. When he talks about a fundamental flaw, he’s not talking about a flaw that can be fixed. Fundamental means that this document is, from the get-go, wrong.” Media Matters notes that “several influential Republicans,” including President Bush, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Chief Justice John Roberts, “have articulated a similar view” to Obama’s. (Media Matters 10/28/2008)
Barack Obama (D-IL) is officially inaugurated as president of the United States. He is the 44th US president. He was elected on November 4, 2008 (see November 4, 2008), and then went through a short transition period. (LoBianco 1/20/2009) Obama is forced to retake the oath of office after Chief Justice John Roberts errs in delivering it during the inaugural ceremonies. Roberts administers the “second” oath in the White House’s map room; Roberts asks Obama if he is ready and Obama says, “I am, and we’re going to do it very slowly.” Roberts initially said the word “faithfully” out of order, prompting some conservative bloggers and reporters to claim that Obama’s presidency is illegitimate. White House counsel Greg Craig says: “We believe that the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. But the oath appears in the Constitution itself. And out of an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath a second time.” The oath properly reads, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (CNN 1/21/2009) Obama takes the first oath on a Bible that belonged to former President Abraham Lincoln, on loan from the Library of Congress. The second oath is taken without a Bible, which is allowed under the Constitution but will lead to further criticism from Obama opponents. (Naughton 1/22/2009)
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).
A press investigation reveals that corporate interests are behind a supposedly grassroots effort to block Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (see May 26, 2009) from ascending to the high court. Raw Story reporters Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane have learned that the Committee for Justice (CFJ), an organization they call “an astroturf group established by big business in July 2002 to create an appearance of popular support for President Bush’s judicial nominees,” is taking the lead in the effort to oppose the Sotomayor nomination. The head of the CFJ, Curt Levey, lambasted Sotomayor as an “intellectual lightweight” the day of her nomination (see May 26, 2009), and has made regular media appearances since then attacking her as racist and biased. CFJ was created in 2002 by Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), who recruited Washington lawyer C. Boyden Gray to “create a fake grassroots organization” to support conservative, pro-business jurists such as Charles Pickering and Chief Justice John Roberts. Gray, a former White House counsel, received the support of former President George H. W. Bush, Republican political adviser Karl Rove, and former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour. Gray has a strong history of creating “astroturf” organizations, which are lobbying and activist groups supposedly founded and led by ordinary citizens but that in fact are created and funded by large political and corporate interests. CFJ is one of the most successful of these creations, and has often been successful in placing pro-business judges on the bench. CFJ and other astroturf organizations founded or assisted by Gray have been funded by, among other firms, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, insurance giant AIG, and the Ameriquest Capital Corporation, receiving over $100 million since 1998. CFJ’s board includes Stan Anderson, the legal advisor to the Chamber of Commerce; John Engler, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers; former Republican governor Frank Keating, now president of the American Council of Life Insurers; and former Republican Senator Connie Mack. (Alexandrovna and Kane 6/5/2009)
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 US Supreme Court says it will schedule a hearing on the controversial “Citizens United” case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (see March 15, 2009), for September 2009, in an unusual second presentation before the Court (see September 9, 2009). According to the justices, the lawyers for both Citizens United (CU) and the federal government should argue whether previous Court rulings upholding federal election law should be overturned based on First Amendment grounds. Both sides are asked to argue whether the Court should overrule the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), which upheld restrictions on corporate spending on political campaigns, and/or the 2003 McConnell decision (see December 10, 2003), which upheld the bulk of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). Law professor Nathaniel Persily says of the directive: “The Court is poised to reverse longstanding precedents concerning the rights of corporations to participate in politics. The only reason to ask for reargument on this is if they’re going to overturn Austin and McConnell.” The New York Times observes, “The Roberts court [referring to the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts] has struck down every campaign finance regulation to reach it, and it seems to have a majority prepared to do more.” Previous lower court rulings have found that CU’s attempt to air a film attacking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was an attempt to engage in “electioneering,” and thus came under the restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign law (see March 27, 2002). The film was financed in part by donations from corporations and individuals whom CU has refused to identify. (United Press International 6/29/2009; Liptak 6/29/2009) CU previously attempted to have its case heard by the Court, but the Court sent the case back to a federal appeals court, which ruled in favor of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and against CU (see March 24, 2008). Law professor Richard Hasen agrees with Persily and the Times that the decision to reargue the case a second time indicates that the Court’s conservative majority is prepared to overturn both Austin and McConnell, and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Hasen writes that if the Court does indeed rule in favor of unlimited corporate spending, it will be in response to the fundraising advantage currently enjoyed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL) over his Republican counterpart, John McCain (R-AZ). (Hasen 6/29/2009) The decision will indeed overturn both Austin and McConnell, and gut most of the BCRA (see January 21, 2010).
As the Senate readies to vote for or against Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court (see August 6, 2009), conservative commentator and author Pat Buchanan attempts to explain why he feels Sotomayor should not be confirmed.
Affirmative Action Accusation - Buchanan, interviewed by MSNBC’s progressive host Rachel Maddow, has accused Sotomayor of being an “affirmative action” selection for the bench (see May 28, 2009, May 31, 2009, June 12, 2009, and June 20, 2009) who uses her position to “discriminate against white males.” As evidence of his claim, he says: “I do believe she’s an affirmative action appointment by the president of the United States. He eliminated everyone but four women and then he picked the Hispanic.” Maddow asks him to define affirmative action, and Buchanan replies, “Affirmative action is to increase diversity by discriminating against white males.” After citing four court cases, he adds: “[A]ffirmative action is basically reverse discrimination against white males and it’s as wrong as discrimination against black females and Hispanics and others. And that’s why I oppose it.”
White People Built America, Buchanan Says - In her turn, Maddow asks, “Why do you think is that of the 110 Supreme Court justices we’ve had in this country, 108 of them have been white?” to which Buchanan responds: “Well, I think white men were 100 percent of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100 percent of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100 percent of people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Probably close to 100 percent of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks in this country who are 90 percent of the entire nation—in 1960, when I was growing up, Rachel—and the other 10 percent were African-American who had been discriminated against. That’s why.” Maddow asks if he believes “there are 108 of 110 white Supreme Court justices because white people essentially deserve to have 99.5 percent of those positions? That there’s nothing—that doesn’t reflect any sort of barrier to those positions by people who aren’t white. You think that’s what they’ve—you think that’s just purely on the basis of what white people have deserved to get?”
Back to Affirmative Action - Buchanan shifts his argument and asserts that the Supreme Court should have the nine finest legal minds and scholars, regardless of race or gender. “But this one doesn’t have that. She was appointed because she’s a Latina, a Hispanic, and a woman.” Maddow counters with Sotomayor’s extensive experience, saying: “She is also the judicial nominee who has more judging experience than any judge has gone up in, say, in the past, I don’t know, what is it, 70 years? She has been an appellate court judge of some distinction for a lot longer than [Chief Justice John] Roberts was, [Justice Samuel] Alito was. I mean, it’s not like she was—she was picked out… she was like picked out of the minor leagues and brought up here, Pat.” Buchanan returns to his affirmative action argument, noting that Sotomayor agreed that she was granted admission to Princeton University because of the program. Buchanan goes farther, accusing her of receiving preferential treatment for all of her accomplishments, including her stint on the Yale Law Review and her appointment to the federal bench. Maddow, battling through Buchanan’s attempts to interrupt her, defends the affirmative action program, saying: “[W]hat our country needs is to be able to choose from the largest possible pool of talent in order to be able to pick the people who are going to have to function at the highest levels so that our country can compete and our country to do all the hard things we need do, I would hope that you would see that picking 108 out of 110 white justices… to the Supreme Court means that other people aren’t actually being appropriately considered. And the reason that you have affirmative action is that you recognize that the fact that people were discriminated against for hundreds of years in this country means that you sort of gained the system, unless you give other people a leg up.” She continues, “But, Pat, for you to argue that there’s no basis on which the United States benefits… from having Hispanics be among the people who we choose the best and brightest from defies belief.… The idea that you think we’ll best serve by only choosing among 99.9 percent white people.… [W]hen I look at the United States Supreme Court and I see 108 out of 110 white people, I see 108 out of 110 men. I’m—I don’t look at that and think, ‘God, white guys are naturally better at this type of work than other people who aren’t getting these jobs.’ I don’t think that way.… I want to hear you—I would love to hear your answer as to whether or not you think that is what explains it, too. Because, I think, what the more obvious explanation is, is that you have to be a white guy in order to get considered for these jobs and has been true since the dawn of time in this country.… That’s starting to break up now so that we can tap a bigger pool of talent. You should be happy about that for your country, Pat.” Buchanan counters that whites “are victims of this evil affirmative action policy which says in effect that everybody’s covered by the 14th Amendment and the civil rights laws unless you’re a white male and your parents and ancestors came from Europe. Then we can discriminate against you. That’s what I am against.”
Stirring 'Up Racial Animus' - Countering Buchanan’s accusations of reverse racism, Maddow says: “Pat, I couldn’t disagree with you more. I tribute—I credit you sticking to your gun. I think you’re absolutely wrong about this and I think that by advocating that the Republican Party try to stir up racial animus among white voters.… You’re dating yourself.” Buchanan says that the government should “defend the legitimate rights of white working-class folks who are the victims of discrimination, because that’s the right thing to do and because it’s the politically right thing to do.” Maddow concludes: “A lot of things divide us, Pat. Race is one of those. But there’s a lot of other ways in which we just gratify as a country, and for you to privilege race and say that what we really need to make sure we tap, politically, is white people’s racial grievances, you’re playing with fire and you’re dating yourself. You’re living in the 1950s, Pat.” (MSNBC 7/17/2009)
The US Senate confirms Judge Sonia Sotomayor (see May 26, 2009) as Supreme Court Justice in a 68-31 vote. Nine Republicans and 59 Democrats vote for her confirmation (four of the Republicans who voted to confirm her are retiring from the Senate after the completion of their terms, and will not face questions about their vote during re-election battles). Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who supports Sotomayor, did not vote due to illness. Sotomayor will be sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts on August 8. President Obama says he is “deeply gratified” by the Senate vote, and adds, “This is a wonderful day for Judge Sotomayor and her family, but I also think it’s a wonderful day for America.” Senator Patrick Leahy closed the final day of debate over Sotomayor’s confirmation by saying: “It is distinctively American to continually refine our union, moving us closer to our ideals. Our union is not yet perfected, but with this confirmation, we will be making progress.… Years from now, we will remember this time, when we crossed paths with the quintessentially American journey of Sonia Sotomayor, and when our nation took another step forward through this historic confirmation process.” At a watch party in the Washington Court Hotel, when the final tally is announced, supporters begin chanting, “Si, se puerde,” the Spanish translation of the 2008 Obama campaign slogan of “Yes, we can.” (CNN 8/6/2009; Phillips 8/6/2009)
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)
Loyola Law School Professor Richard Hasen writes that the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010) is a “bad day for American democracy.” The Court as headed by Chief Justice John Roberts is a conservative activist court, Hasen writes, determined to recraft “constitutional law in its image.” The Citizens United ruling opens up the American political system “to a money free-for-all.” Hasen originally thought the Court would make a narrow ruling in the Citizens United case, perhaps finding that the campaign finance law often referred to as McCain-Feingold (see March 27, 2002) does not apply to video-on-demand broadcasts. “That would be in line with some of the past decisions of the Roberts Court, when it had preferred to chip away at existing precedent rather than dramatically move the law rightward.” But during questioning, it became clear that the conservatives on the Court were ready to dismantle McCain-Feingold as opposed to merely chipping away at it. The Court struck down limitations on corporate spending entirely (see March 27, 1990) and much of the legal limitations on so-called “soft money” campaign funding (see December 10, 2003). Hasen says that the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy equates funding limitations with censorship. Hasen writes: “There are many responses to Justice Kennedy’s reasoning. He wrongly assumes that corporations or unions can throw money at public officials without corrupting them. Could a candidate for judicial office, for example, be swayed to rule in favor of a contributor who donated $3 million to an independent campaign to get the candidate elected to the State Supreme Court? Justice Kennedy himself thought so in [a previous case]. And yet he runs away from that decision in today’s ruling. Justice Kennedy acknowledges that with the ‘soft money’ limits on political parties still in place, third-party groups (which tend to run more negative and irresponsible ads) will increase in strength relative to political parties. And that possibility raises the real chance Congress will repeal the ‘soft money’ limits, thereby increasing the risks of quid pro quo corruption.” Hasen believes that Kennedy is enshrining a fundamental principle of financial inequality—that wealthy individuals and corporations now have the legal right to unduly influence elections via their money. Money, Hasen writes, should not be equated with speech, as Kennedy has found. Instead of doing what the Court traditionally does, Hasen writes, and taking a narrow view of a constitutional issue as it has in a recent case (see June 22, 2009)—the time-honored principle of “constitutional avoidance”—this time the Court has gone to the extreme to transform the constitutional interpretation of electoral procedures. “[T]he Court went out of its way to overturn its own precedent, in violation of its usual rule of stare decisis, which calls for respecting past rulings for the good of reliable law-making. And it did so violating its usual rule, which it cited even yesterday, that it does not generally reach issues not raised in the initial petition to the Court. In short, the Court did not have to do what it did today.… This is a Court that has taken a giant leap toward deregulation of the electoral process.” (Hasen 1/21/2010)
The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010) In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” (Savage 1/21/2010; OMB Watch 1/27/2010; Richey and Feldmann 2/2/2010; National Public Radio 2012)
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010)
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010; Sherman 1/21/2010; Richey and Feldmann 2/2/2010)
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” (Rucker 1/22/2010)
Liberal MSNBC commentator and talk show host Keith Olbermann devotes one of his “special comments” to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited corporate donations in elections (see January 21, 2010). Olbermann starts by reminding his viewers of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott ruling by the Court that found no African-American could be considered a US citizen (see March 6, 1857). Olbermann compares Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the Citizens United decision, unfavorably to the much-maligned chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott ruling; Olbermann says that the Citizens United decision “might actually have more dire implications than” the 1857 finding. Olbermann says: “In short, the First Amendment—free speech for persons—which went into affect in 1791, applies to corporations, which were not recognized as the equivalents of persons until 1886. In short, there are now no checks on the ability of corporations or unions or other giant aggregations of power to decide our elections. None. They can spend all the money they want. And if they can spend all the money they want—sooner, rather than later—they will implant the legislators of their choice in every office from president to head of the Visiting Nurse Service. And if senators and congressmen and governors and mayors and councilmen and everyone in between are entirely beholden to the corporations for election and re-election to office soon they will erase whatever checks there might still exist to just slow down the ability of corporations to decide the laws.” Corporations can, in essence, buy and sell politicians at will, Olbermann says, and those politicians can change laws as their corporate donors dictate. “[A]ny legal defense you can structure now, can be undone by the politicians who will be bought and sold into office this November, or two years from now. And any legal defense which honest politicians can somehow wedge up against them this November, or two years from now, can be undone by the next even larger set of politicians who will be bought and sold into office in 2014, or 2016, or 2018.… Unless this mortal blow is somehow undone, within 10 years, every politician in this country will be a prostitute.” Labor unions, Olbermann says, will quickly be “strangled” by corporations “so they pose no further threat to the corporations’ total control of our political system.” Taxes on the wealthy and on corporations will be slashed, and social programs will be eliminated, “because money spent on the poor means less money left for the corporations.” Wars that benefit the military-industrial complex will become the norm. Racial and religious profiling will become commonplace, because the corporations will want to shift blame from their own machinations onto someone else, and people of different religions or ethnicities are easy targets for such blame. The “poor dumb manipulated b_stards” of the “tea parties” will “have a glorious few years as the front men as the corporations that bankroll them slowly unroll their total control of our political system,” until they are “banished, maybe outlawed, when a few of the brighter ones suddenly realize that the corporations have made them the Judas Goats of American freedom.” The Obama administration’s bank reforms will be eliminated by “his successor purchased by the banks.” Corporations will buy and control government entities from federal agencies to town councils. Billionaires will “buy and install their own city governments.” The mainstream media as we know it will disappear, because the corporate-owned government will require media outlets to reassure the populace that “everything’s great” and no one is needed to speak out against the government. The Internet, currently a venue that allows the most disparate of opinions to be voiced and shared, will be corralled and brought to heel. Olbermann concludes by saying: “The right wing won’t even tell their constituents that they are being sold into bondage alongside the rest of us. And why should they? For them, the start of this will be wonderful.” (Olbermann 1/21/2010)
Liberal MSNBC commentator and talk show host Keith Olbermann devotes one of his “special comments” to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited corporate donations in elections (see January 21, 2010). Olbermann starts by reminding his viewers of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott ruling by the Court that found no African-American could ever be considered a US citizen (see March 6, 1857). Olbermann compares Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the Citizens United decision, unfavorably to the much-maligned chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott ruling; Olbermann says that the Citizens United decision “might actually have more dire implications than” the 1857 finding. Olbermann says: “In short, the First Amendment—free speech for persons—which went into affect in 1791, applies to corporations, which were not recognized as the equivalents of persons until 1886. In short, there are now no checks on the ability of corporations or unions or other giant aggregations of power to decide our elections. None. They can spend all the money they want. And if they can spend all the money they want—sooner, rather than later—they will implant the legislators of their choice in every office from president to head of the Visiting Nurse Service. And if senators and congressmen and governors and mayors and councilmen and everyone in between are entirely beholden to the corporations for election and re-election to office, soon they will erase whatever checks there might still exist to just slow down the ability of corporations to decide the laws.” Corporations can, in essence, buy and sell politicians at will, Olbermann says, and those politicians can change laws as their corporate donors dictate. “[A]ny legal defense you can structure now, can be undone by the politicians who will be bought and sold into office this November, or two years from now. And any legal defense which honest politicians can somehow wedge up against them this November, or two years from now, can be undone by the next even larger set of politicians who will be bought and sold into office in 2014, or 2016, or 2018.… Unless this mortal blow is somehow undone, within 10 years every politician in this country will be a prostitute.” Labor unions, Olbermann says, will quickly be “strangled” by corporations “so they pose no further threat to the corporations’ total control of our political system.” Taxes on the wealthy and on corporations will be slashed, and social programs will be eliminated, “because money spent on the poor means less money left for the corporations.” Wars that benefit the military-industrial complex will become the norm. Racial and religious profiling will become commonplace, because the corporations will want to shift blame from their own machinations onto someone else, and people of different religions or ethnicities are easy targets for such blame. The “poor dumb manipulated b_stards” of the “tea parties” will “have a glorious few years as the front men as the corporations that bankroll them slowly unroll their total control of our political system,” until they are “banished, maybe outlawed, when a few of the brighter ones suddenly realize that the corporations have made them the Judas Goats of American freedom.” The Obama administration’s bank reforms will be eliminated by “his successor purchased by the banks.” Corporations will buy and control government entities from federal agencies to town councils. Billionaires will “buy and install their own city governments.” The mainstream media as we know it will disappear, because the corporate-owned government will require media outlets to reassure the populace that “everything’s great” and no one is needed to speak out against the government. The Internet, currently a venue that allows the most disparate of opinions to be voiced and shared, will be corralled and brought to heel. Olbermann concludes by saying: “The right wing won’t even tell their constituents that they are being sold into bondage alongside the rest of us. And why should they? For them, the start of this will be wonderful.” (Olbermann 1/21/2010)
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)
Erlyndon Joseph Lo, a law school graduate living in Plano, Texas, is arrested and charged with threatening to use deadly force against a Dallas women’s clinic. He faces up to six years in prison if convicted. The day before, Lo went to the Plano federal courthouse and filed a document affirming that at noon that day he planned to go to the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas and “use deadly force to defend the innocent life of another human being.” His filing reads in part (all emphases in the original): “My life is at stake. I could be MURDERED AND KILLED as early as Friday, April 2, 2010 at 12:00 p.m. NOON in Dallas, Texas (‘TX’) if you do not IMMEDIATELY GRANT MY REQUEST for in the very least a TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER!!! I plan on saving at least one human life in Dallas, Texas at 12:00 p.m. at the Southwestern late-term abortion facility, 8616 Greenville Ave. at Royal Ln. (NE corner), Dallas 75243. My religious beliefs include the beliefs that an individual is alive at the moment of conception, abortion is murder and is the worst murder of all murders possible because these babies are completely defenseless, and I am entitled under my religious beliefs to use deadly force if necessary to save the innocent life of another.… I will try to stop an abortion using oral words, and if words are not enough. I will use physical force if necessary, and if anyone tries to physically stop me, I will overcome that force, and if I must use deadly force to defend the innocent life of another human being, I will.” In essence, Lo attempted to secure a restraining order to prevent law enforcement officers from interfering with his use of violence against clinic workers. Instead of issuing the order, court officials informed the FBI and Lo is quickly arrested. Dallas FBI spokesman Mark White says: “We won’t tolerate threats to clinics. We acted swiftly to ensure that no one was injured and that no act of violence actually did take place.” FBI agents say that, sometime in mid-March, a man matching Lo’s description went to the same clinic demanding to know if his wife had had an abortion there; clinic officials refused to divulge any such information. On March 18, Lo sued Chief Justice John Roberts, in a filing written in his own handwriting and naming himself as his own lawyer, demanding that Roberts order the Supreme Court to immediately stop all abortions throughout the nation. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 4/5/2010; Trahan 4/6/2010) (Lo also asks for ”$999 trillion in damages” and $1,000 an hour for his attorney’s fees.) (Kashmir Hill 4/6/2010) The FBI notes that during his visits to the clerk of court’s office, “Lo exhibited erratic behavior, including raising his voice at members of the clerk’s office, obsessively washing his hands in the public restroom, and sitting in a court witness room in the dark without authorization to enter the room.” On his Web site, Lo is harshly critical of abortion, predicting he will win his lawsuit against the Supreme Court, and notes that he “challenged President Barack Obama to a public debate on abortion, which he lost by not responding.” (Federal Bureau of Investigation 4/5/2010; Trahan 4/6/2010) Author and filmmaker Roxann MtJoy, writing for the progressive Women’s Rights blog, observes: “Anti-choicers, in general, do not scare me. While I may passionately disagree with their ideology and often their tactics, they are more irritating than anything else. Lo, however, scares me. He scares me because he believes, much like Scott Roeder (see May 31, 2009), that his opinion justifies violence. He believes he has the moral authority to kill those who stand in opposition to him.” (MtJoy 4/13/2010)
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 US Supreme Court finds in favor of the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) in a court case brought by the father of a slain Marine whose funeral was disrupted by a WBC protest (see March 10, 2006 and After and October 2007). A court initially rendered an initial judgment of $5 million against the group for causing “excessive” pain and suffering to the family (see April 3, 2008), but an appeals court overturned that verdict (see March 2010). Snyder appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that as a private citizen and not a public figure, he had an expectation of privacy that the WBC violated. “The [WBC protesters’] freedom of speech should have ended where it conflicted with Mr. Snyder’s freedom to participate in his son’s funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering,” Snyder’s lawyers argued before the Court. For their side, WBC lawyers, including church member Margie Phelps, argued that Snyder was indeed something of a public figure because he spoke to reporters after his son’s death and after the funeral, including giving quotes to reporters that excoriated the WBC. Additionally, the WBC denied interfering with or disrupting the funeral, and said that it was “well within the bounds of the law” when it picketed the funeral and used speech that was “hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical.” The WBC pickets funerals, its lawyers argued, “to use an available public platform when the living contemplate death, to deliver the message that there is a consequence for sin.… It was about publicly-funded funerals of publicly-funded soldiers dying in an extremely public war because of very public policies of sin, including homosexuality, divorce, remarriage, and Roman Catholic priests molesting children.… The fact the speech was hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical is why it should be protected. [It is] the essence of the kind of robust speech on critical public issues for which the First Amendment was written.” The Court rules 8-1 in favor of the WBC, saying that the group’s First Amendment rights protect it in debating public issues. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissents. The Court also notes that the WBC obeyed directions from local officials, kept a distance from the church where the Snyder funeral was held, and did not directly disrupt the funeral service. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts finds: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Many critics celebrate the reversal, saying that while the WBC’s actions were reprehensible, the original trial verdict, which found grounds for cause under the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, could be used to suppress freedom of expression in a number of other venues. (Fry 10/2/2010; Carpenter 3/2/2011; Anti-Defamation League 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center 2012) Opponents of the WBC say they are relieved that the ruling does not impact laws designed to protect grieving families from the church’s protests at funerals (see January 11, 2011). Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt criticizes the Court’s ruling, saying: “Today’s decision is a disappointment for Kansans who have endured for so long the embarrassment brought upon our state by the shameful conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church. Our hearts go out to the Snyder family whose pain and distress were at issue in this case.” (Carpenter 3/2/2011) Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says the ruling is more positive than negative: “Our highest court has reinforced the belief that our individual rights to free speech and assembly are so critical that we all must be willing to tolerate even that which the majority might find abhorrent.… It doesn’t say that what the Phelps family does or says is right. It simply says that in the United States, it is protected speech. When we start regulating speech, we’re headed down a very slippery slope. The Supreme Court is to be commended for refusing to take that route.” Snyder says the ruling shows that “eight justices don’t have the sense God gave a goat.” (Johnson 3/2/2011)
The US Supreme Court strikes down part of an Arizona law providing public funding for political campaigns. In the case of Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett, the Court rules 5-4 that a provision in Arizona law providing additional funds to publicly funded candidates whose opponents use private donations to outspend them is illegal. Some opponents of unfettered outside spending feared that the Court would use the case to put an end to most, if not all, programs that provide public money to candidates; Think Progress’s Ian Millhiser explains: “Candidates will only agree to accept public financing if it won’t prevent them from running a competitive race. If a state offers only a few thousand dollars in public funds to a candidate whose opponent is backed by tens of millions of corporate dollars, then the non-corporate candidate will have no choice but to raise money on their own. To defend against this problem, Arizona developed a two-tiered public financing system. Candidates receive additional funds if their opponent or corporate interest groups overwhelm them with attack ads, and thus candidates who are determined not to be tainted by the corrupting influence of major donors are not left defenseless.” The ruling will not have an impact on the presidential race, since the federal public financing system lacks such a provision, and since it seems unlikely that either President Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney (R-MA) will use public financing in 2012. The case was brought by two organizations, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, on behalf of Arizona state candidates who rejected public funds. The groups argued that the provision infringed on those candidates’ freedom of speech by compelling them to spend less money to avoid triggering the additional funds.
Majority, Minority Opinions - Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed: “We hold that Arizona’s matching funds scheme substantially burdens protected political speech without serving a compelling state interest and, therefore, violates the First Amendment.” The matching funds provision “imposes an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises [his] First Amendment right[s],” Roberts adds. If the provision is allowed to stand, “the vigorous exercise of the right to use personal funds to finance campaign speech” leads to “advantages for opponents in the competitive context of electoral politics.” The privately funded candidate, Roberts writes, must “shoulder a special and potentially significant burden” when choosing to exercise his First Amendment right to spend funds on behalf of his candidacy. Justice Elena Kagan dissents, writing that the plaintiffs “are making a novel argument: that Arizona violated their First Amendment rights by disbursing funds to other speakers even though they could have received—but chose to spurn—the same financial assistance. Some people might call that chutzpah.”
Reactions - Attorney Bill Maurer, who represented the Institute for Justice, says the ruling “makes clear that the First Amendment is not an exception to campaign finance laws; it is the rule” (see January 30, 1976 and January 21, 2010). He adds that he hopes the ruling will serve as “a clear reminder to government officials that they may not coerce speakers to limit their own speech.” Millhiser writes: “So public financing laws can technically remain, but Arizona’s attempt to protect publicly financed candidates from a wave of corporate attack ads is absolutely forbidden. Moreover, because few candidates can know in advance whether the will face an onslaught of hostile corporate ads, most candidates will hedge their bets and avoid the risk of public financing.… Without unlimited corporate money in elections, most candidates could afford to take public funds unless their opponent had unusual access to wealth or wealthy donors.” Referring to the 5-4 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), Millhiser continues, “In the post-Citizens United America, however, no one is safe from corporate America’s nearly bottomless pool of potential campaign expenditures.” Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an organization opposed to the unrestricted influence of outside donors, says, “The five-vote Big Money majority on the court has spoken again in favor of wealthy special interests.” Fred Wertheimer of the campaign finance group Democracy 21 calls the ruling “another seriously misguided campaign finance decision,” but adds “it does not cast any doubt on the continued viability or constitutionality of a number of other existing public financing systems that do not include ‘trigger funds’ or similar provisions.” Common Cause President Bob Edgar says, “This is not the death knell of public financing.” (Vogel 6/27/2011; Millhiser 6/27/2011)
Plaintiffs Financed by Wealthy Conservative Interests - The next day, Think Progress’s Lee Fang will reveal that the two groups who filed the lawsuit, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, are financed by wealthy conservative interests. The Institute for Justice, a group dedicated to bringing cases to court in order to deregulate private corporations and to increase the participation of wealthy corporate interests in elections, was created with “seed money” from oil billionaire Charles Koch (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, and September 24, 2010). The Walton Family Foundation, a foundation run by the billionaire family of Arkansas retailer Sam Walton (the founder of Wal-Mart), has donated $1.64 million to the group. The Foundation has written that the Citizens United decision and the Arizona case are two top priorities for the Institute. The Goldwater Institute, one of Arizona’s most prominent conservative think tanks, is focused on rolling back health care reform. The Institute is funded by several foundations, including the Walton and the Charles Koch Foundations. Fang notes that much of the funding for both groups remains undisclosed. (Fang 6/28/2011)
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)
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)
Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) writes an article for the Stanford Law Review discussing the dominance of “big money” in the nation’s elections in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), documenting his belief that the rise in small-donor contributions that put Democrats in office in 2006 and 2008 led to the Citizens United backlash, and calling for sweeping campaign finance reform. Feingold writes, “Without a significant change in how our campaign finance system regulates the influence of corporations, the American election process, and even the Supreme Court itself, face a more durable, long-term crisis of legitimacy.” Feingold heads Progressives United, an advocacy group that pushes for the overturning of the Citizens United decision and campaign finance legislation.
Background - Feingold gives the background of campaign finance reform in America: the 1907 Tillman Act which banned corporations from spending their money in elections (see 1907), which he says was spurred by the realization that “corporate influence corrupts elections”; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which extended the Tillman ban to labor unions (see June 23, 1947); and more recent legislation, including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), which Feingold co-authored with Senator John McCain (R-AZ). “And for several election cycles, between 2004 and 2008, our system seemed headed towards more fair and transparent elections,” he writes. “But Citizens United changed everything.” The “road to corruption” in modern elections, he says, began when Democrats in the early 1990s began exploiting a loophole in finance regulation that allowed the creation of “soft money” groups (see January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, and December 10, 2003) that allowed parties to solicit unlimited amounts of donations from corporations, labor unions, and individuals. “This system was corrupting,” Feingold writes. “Senators would solicit gigantic, unregulated contributions from the same corporations that had legislation pending on the Senate floor. Both parties were guilty.” The BCRA plugged the “soft money” loophole. Even as the BCRA began to reform campaign finance practices, Feingold writes, “the same corporate interests that fought McCain-Feingold set to work to dismantle it. In what was clearly an orchestrated effort by opponents of campaign reform (see January 25, 2010), a group called Citizens United produced a movie savaging the record of then-Senator Clinton (see January 10-16, 2008). Ostensibly intended to educate the public about conservative concerns regarding Clinton’s run for the presidency, the film was little more than a legal vehicle to challenge some of the common-sense restrictions enacted by the BCRA (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). Specifically, the creators of the film sought to challenge the BCRA’s requirement that electioneering communications—commonly known as ‘phony issue ads’ that attack a candidate in the days before the election, but don’t explicitly advocate voting for or against that candidate—be subject to the same disclosure requirements and contribution limits as other campaign ads.” The case was argued on narrow grounds about a specific provision of the BCRA, but the Court’s conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, “manipulated the Court’s process to achieve that result” (see May 14, 2012). Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent to the majority opinion, “[F]ive 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.” The ruling, Feingold writes, “created a framework for corruption parallel to ‘soft money.’” Instead of “soft money” organizations, Citizens United led to the creation of the “super PAC” (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, January 4, 2012, January 13, 2012, and February 20, 2012). It has also called into doubt the legitimacy of US elections themselves, due to the “increasing skepticism about the campaign finance system.” Many voters now believe “that the average participant’s small contribution is irrelevant, and that the average person’s vote is grossly outweighed by the gigantic contributions now allowed.”
Internet Politics and Small-Donor Contributions - In part due to the BCRA, Feingold writes, “[f]or three election cycles, in 2004, 2006, and 2008, our system of campaign financing began to take shape in a way that channeled citizen participation and provided incentive for candidates to turn to the democratic support of online activists and small-dollar contributors.” He cites the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean (D-VT), who went on to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as the first powerful instance of “online organizing,” using the Internet to garner millions of dollars in small donations from individual citizens. In 2008, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama (D-IL) pushed the Dean innovation even further. The Obama campaign “raised a historic amount in small-dollar contributions,” Feingold writes, and created an online platform to engage supporters. All told, the Obama campaign raised $500 million online.
An Ineffective FEC - By 2008, he writes, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was completely impotent. The agency “has been fatally flawed since the time of its creation—any administrative law professor will point out that a law enforcement commission with an even number of commissioners [six] is probably designed specifically not to enforce the law at all,” he writes. By 2008, the FEC only had two seated commissioners, and in effect was not enforcing campaign laws whatsoever. Even after eventually receiving a full complement of commissioners, he writes, the agency “remains ineffective, as even Democratic violators go unpunished as conservative commissioners remain unwilling, philosophically, to enforce any campaign finance law.”
2012: Corporations Trump Citizens - In 2012, corporate contributions far outweigh small-dollar donations by individuals. “[T]he most prominent actors in the 2012 election cycle are unnamed corporations and a small group of influential—primarily conservative—billionaires.” Seventy percent of registered voters think super PACs should be illegal, according to polls, and the favorability rating of the Court has dropped a significant amount. Overall, Feingold writes, the public is firmly against the Citizens United paradigm of campaign finance. He advocates strong legislation from Congress, fixing the “broken system of presidential public financing,” and replacing the “dysfunctional” FEC “with a true enforcement agency.” The ultimate repair of campaign finance lies with the Court, he says, noting that the Court has a chance to do some early repair with the Montana case it is now considering (see June 25, 2012). Regardless of what the Court does or does not do in the Montana case, he concludes, “[t]oday’s framework for corruption cannot stand.” (Feingold 6/14/2012)
Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) says that the US Supreme Court’s recent summary reversal of a Montana Supreme Court decision to uphold Montana’s ban on corporate political spending (see June 25, 2012) proves that the US Supreme Court is actively working to dismantle representative democracy. Referring to the 2010 Citizens United case that formed the basis for the Court’s recent decision (see January 21, 2010), Feingold says: “This court had one fig leaf left after this one awful decision two years ago.” The justices could claim “they were politically naive or didn’t know what would happen when they overturned 100 years of law on corporate contributions.” But after the American Tradition Partnership decision that reversed the Montana high court, he says, “They have shown themselves wantonly willing to undo our democracy.” Feingold continues: “This is one of the great turning points, not only in campaign finance but also in our country’s history. I believe we’re in a constitutional crisis.” Feingold heads an anti-Citizens United group called Progressives United, which works to raise awareness about the effects of the decisions and to persuade Congress to overturn the decision via legislation. He says the Supreme Court has “clearly become… a partisan arm of corporate America. This is a real serious problem for our democracy. It’s essentially a court that rules in one direction.… [T]his court is no longer perceived as the independent arbiter of the law that the people expect them to be.” A recent study by the Constitutional Accountability Center shows that during the tenure of Chief Justice John Roberts, the US Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s most powerful business lobbying organization (see January 21-22, 2010, June 26-28, 2010, July 26, 2010, August 2, 2010, October 2010, and February 10, 2011), which filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to rule against the Montana high court (see April 30, 2012), has seen victory in 68 percent of the cases in which it has filed briefs, a much higher success record than in earlier years. Feingold wrote an article for the Stanford Law Review claiming that the 2006-2008 rise in small donor contributions spurred corporations and the Supreme Court to create the Citizens United decision (see June 14, 2012). Feingold says: “The corporate interest in America saw the face of democracy, and so what they did was engineer this decision. They used it as an excuse to stop citizen democracy in this country.” Nevertheless, Feingold is confident that grassroots organizations such as Progressives United and efforts in other venues, including Congress and the Obama administration, will eventually see Citizens United overturned. For now, he quotes his campaign finance reform partner, Senator John McCain, who recently said, “I promise you there will be huge scandals” (see March 27, 2012). Feingold says, “There already is a scandal.” (Blumenthal 6/27/2012)
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