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Profile: Scott Nelson
Scott Nelson was a participant or observer in the following events:
President Barack Obama issues an executive order limiting the ability of former presidents to block the release of records from their time in the White House. Obama’s order overturns an executive order from former President Bush (see November 1, 2001) that is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit, and was found in part illegal by a federal judge in 2007. Obama’s order invalidates Bush’s order entirely. Obama’s order allows former presidents to ask the National Archives to keep certain documents private, but strips their power to compel the Archives to do so. The order also covers former vice presidents and the families of deceased presidents. “It’s a great signal to send on the president’s first day in office,” says Scott Nelson, a lawyer with the civil liberties group Public Citizen, which led the challenge to Bush’s order. Nelson says the order will make it easier for researchers to gain access to White House records.
Strips Power from Former Executives - Under the Presidential Records Act, former presidents can restrict access to some of their records, including confidential communications with advisers, for up to 12 years. Bush’s order extended that restriction indefinitely, and gave former vice presidents and even the families and heirs of deceased presidents the same power to restrict documents. Obama’s order limits claims of executive privilege to records concerning national security, law enforcement or internal communications; it also specifies that only living former presidents may request that papers not be made public, and gives them 30 days to say so once they get word of the archivist’s intention to release records. The order gives the Obama administration and the National Archives, not the former executives, the final decision-making power. Under Obama’s order, former Vice President Dick Cheney can no longer block access to records from his records during his eight years in the White House. Cheney is engaged in a lawsuit to block access to his vice-presidential records. [Washington Post, 1/21/2009]
Wide-Ranging Impact - Experts agree that the executive order could have wide-ranging impacts on a number of issues relating to the Bush administration. Douglas Kmiec, a conservative law professor and an expert on executive privilege, says the order could strongly impact current battles over Bush’s records, “whether it be the dismissal of US attorneys, whether it be other assertions of executive privilege dealing with White House emails and the like.” It could also affect investigations into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and the Bush administration’s efforts to precipitate a war with Iraq. [TPM Muckraker, 1/22/2009] Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel in the Clinton administration, says he believes the Obama order is specifically designed to pry loose information from the Bush administration about such issues. “This is absolutely about all those issues,” he says. In a sense, Eggleston continues, it is an order to the National Archivist: “It says, ‘Archivist—if Bush calls up and says don’t release certain papers, don’t listen to what he says, listen to what I say.’” [TPM Muckraker, 1/23/2009]
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). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 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. [Christian Science Monitor, 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.” [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 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?” [New York Times, 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). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 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.” [New Yorker, 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. [New Yorker, 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.” [Washington Post, 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).
Entity Tags: Clarence Thomas, US Department of Justice, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Scott Nelson, US Supreme Court, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Citizens United, Barbara Olson, American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Kennedy, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton, Gregg P. Leslie, Nick Nyhart, Edwin Kneedler, David Souter, Federal Election Commission, James Bopp, Jr, John Paul Stevens, David Bossie, John G. Roberts, Jr, Jeffrey Toobin, Malcolm Stewart
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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