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Profile: Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a participant or observer in the following events:

A federal appeals court rules 2-1 in favor of Theodore Olson, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who has refused to comply with a subpoena issued as part of an independent counsel’s investigation into political interference at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Olson’s position is that the independent counsel is illegal under the Constitution, as interpreted by the so-called “unitary executive theory” (see April 30, 1986). One of the appellate court judges, Carter appointee Ruth Bader Ginsberg, argues that the independent counsel law is perfectly constitutional, and fits with the Founding Fathers’ vision of a system of “checks and balances” among the three governmental branches. But Reagan appointees Laurence Silberman and Stephen Williams outvote Ginsberg. Silberman, who writes the majority opinion, is a longtime advocate of increased executive power, and calls the independent counsel law “inconsistent with the doctrine of a unitary executive.” The Supreme Court will strike down Silberman’s ruling (see June 1988), but the independent counsel will not bring charges against Olson. [Savage, 2007, pp. 46-49]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Environmental Protection Agency, Laurence Silberman, Stephen Williams, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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]

Entity Tags: John G. Roberts, Jr, Associated Press, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Samuel Alito, Tom DeLay, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Richard L. Hasen, John Paul Stevens, US Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The decision of the Montana Supreme Court to uphold Montana’s ban on corporate donations to political campaigns (see December 30, 2011 and After), which directly contradicts the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), is being appealed to the US Supreme Court. The plaintiffs, American Tradition Partnership (ATP) and the other two corporate entities that joined ATP in the original lawsuit, ask Justice Anthony Kennedy to issue a stay on the Montana high court verdict while the Supreme Court considers the appeal. In their application for a stay, the plaintiffs write: “The Montana Supreme Court held the ban constitutional despite the holding in [the Citizens United decision] that ‘[n]o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.’ Immediate relief is needed to prevent irreparable harm to the corporations’ First Amendment free-speech right. Montana’s primary elections are on June 5, making it vital that planning begin now for independent expenditures before the election.” The application also asks Kennedy to refer the matter to the Court, have it treated as a petition for review, and then summarily reverse the Montana Supreme Court. James Bopp, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, writes, “The lower court’s refusal to follow Citizens United is such an obvious, blatant disregard of its duty to follow this Court’s decisions that summary reversal is proper.” In a statement, Bopp adds: “Unequivocally, Citizens United means that corporate independent expenditure bans are invalid under the United States Constitution. The Montana Supreme Court has shirked its responsibility to follow that decisions and the United States Supreme Court should reverse their ruling.” The other two parties involved as plaintiffs are the Montana Shooting Sports Association and Champion Painting Inc. At least five justices vote to issue the stay, though an official decision to accept the case on appeal is still pending, and the Court has not spoken on the subject of summary reversal. Two justices who dissented from the Citizens United case, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, agree that the Montana Supreme Court’s decision should be reviewed, but in a statement attached to the stay order, add: “Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’ A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway. Because lower courts are bound to follow this Court’s decisions until they are withdrawn or modified, however, I vote to grant the stay.” The stay allows Montana corporations to donate without restriction to super PACs operated on behalf of electoral candidates. [Legal Times, 2/10/2012; SCOTUSBlog, 2/17/2012; US Supreme Court, 2/17/2012 pdf file] The US Supreme Court will strike down the Montana ruling (see June 25, 2012).

Entity Tags: Montana Shooting Sports Association, American Tradition Partnership, Anthony Kennedy, James Bopp, Jr, Stephen Breyer, Champion Painting Inc., Montana Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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

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

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court, without hearing arguments, strikes down a century-old Montana ban on corporate spending in elections (see December 30, 2011 and After), effectively reaffirming its Citizens United decision to allow unlimited, untraceable corporate spending on elections (see January 21, 2010). Some observers expected the Court to temper its original finding in the Citizens United decision, but such is not the outcome. The case, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, originates in Montana’s 19th-century ban on corporate spending in elections. In December 2011, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the law (see December 30, 2011 and After), finding that the Citizens United ruling allowed for restrictions on corporate political speech if the government could demonstrate that the restrictions were as minimal as possible to achieve a compelling governmental interest. Today, the US Supreme Court rules 5-4 that the Montana Supreme Court’s argument is invalid, saying there is “no serious doubt” that the Citizens United ruling supersedes Montana state law. Two dissenting Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, argued for the case to be presented to the Court, viewing the case as “an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.” However, the Court’s conservative majority strikes down the Montana Supreme Court’s decision and invalidates the CPA. Breyer writes in his dissent, “Even if I were to accept Citizens United, this Court’s legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana.” The next recourse for Montana citizens is Ballot Initiative I-166, which would establish that corporations are not people in Montana and would call on Montana’s Congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. [American Tradition Partnership, Inc., FKA Western Tradition Partnership, Inc., et al v. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Of Montana, et al, 6/25/2012 pdf file; SCOTUSBlog, 6/25/2012; Reuters, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 7/10/2012] Democratic campaign lawyer Marc Elias says of the decision: “To the extent that there was any doubt from the original Citizens United decision broadly applies to state and local laws, that doubt is now gone. To whatever extent that door was open a crack, that door is now closed.” Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) says that the Court is “[f]or apparently political reasons… further tipping the balance of power in America in favor of deep-pocketed, outside interests.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calls the decision an “important victory for freedom of speech.” [Washington Post, 6/25/2012]

Entity Tags: Stephen Breyer, Mitch McConnell, Marc Elias, Charles Schumer, Montana Supreme Court, US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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