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The Supreme Court rules in the case of Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Committee. The case originated with advertisements run by the Colorado Republican Party (CRP) in 1986 attacking the Colorado Democratic Party’s likely US Senate candidate. Neither party had yet selected its candidate for that position. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) sued the CRP’s Federal Campaign Committee, saying that its actions violated the “party expenditure provision” of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) by spending more than the law allows. The CRP in turn claimed that FECA violated its freedom of speech, and filed a counterclaim. A Colorado court ruled in favor of the CRP, dismissing the counterclaim as moot, but an appeals court overturned the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court rules 7-2 in favor of the FEC. The decision is unusual, lacking a clear majority, but being comprised of a “plurality” of concurrences. The majority opinion, such as it is, is authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court liberals, and is joined by fellow liberal David Souter and conservative Sandra Day O’Connor. Conservatives Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia go farther than Breyer’s majority decision, writing that the provision violates the First Amendment when it restricts as a “contribution” a political party’s spending “in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with a candidate.” In yet another concurrence, conservative Clarence Thomas argues that the entire provision is flatly unconstitutional. Liberals John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissent, agreeing with the appeals court. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012) In 2001, the Court will revisit the case and find its initial ruling generally sound, though the later decision will find that some spending restrictions are constitutional. In the revisiting, four of the Court’s five conservatives will dissent, with the liberals joined by O’Connor. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)
The Supreme Court unanimously overturns the lengthy prison sentences given to five Branch Davidians for using machine guns during a February 1993 shootout with federal agents (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993 and January-February 1994). Writing for the Court, Justice Stephen Breyer says a Texas federal judge should not have used a federal firearm law to increase the convicted Davidians’ sentences, but instead let the jury make that decision. The ruling sends the case back to the judge for a new sentencing. (Reuters 6/5/2000) A judge will reduce the 40-year sentences to 15 years. (Associated Press 4/19/2006)
Shortly after the presidential vote that resulted in an as-yet-unresolved flurry of recounts and criticisms (see 6:36 p.m. November 15, 2000 and 9:14 p.m., November 15, 2000), two law clerks at the US Supreme Court laugh about the unlikely possibility that the election will end up being resolved in the Court. Could it happen that way? they wonder. And if so, would the Court split 5-4 along ideological lines, with the conservative majority giving Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) the presidency? The idea is preposterous, they decide, no matter what some of their friends and relatives are predicting. Even the most conservative of Court justices, they say, are pragmatic and mindful of the law. Moreover, they tell one another, the Court has always steered clear of sticky political conflicts. And the conservative justices are the most mindful of states’ rights and most devoted to the concept of the Constitution’s “original intent,” including the Founders’ insistance that Congress, not the judiciary, should be the body to resolve close elections. One clerk later tells reporters: “It was just inconceivable to us that the Court would want to lose its credibility in such a patently political way. That would be the end of the Court.” As November moves closer to December and the election fracas continues unresolved, a law professor predicts that Bush’s chances before the Court are “between slim and none, and a lot closer to none.” Over Thanksgiving, the justices and clerks leave Washington for vacation, with only a skeletal staff of a few clerks remaining in town in case of emergencies. Justice Stephen Breyer says over the holiday that there is no way the Court would ever get involved in the election. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The Bush presidential campaign files a petition in the US Supreme Court, asking the Court to review the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that Florida can continue manual recounts, and that those new recount tallies be included in the final election results (see November 20-21, 2000). Bush lawyers argue that the Supreme Court effectively rewrote Florida election law in mandating the recount tallies be counted, by essentially changing the law after the election had occurred; they also argue that Florida judges have no jurisdiction or legal authoritiy to order Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (see After 3:30 a.m. November 8, 2000 and After) to consider manually recounted votes. Both arguments are considered somewhat abstruse and technical. The Bush campaign also claims, with little legal backing, that to recount the votes violates constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. Gore lawyers say that the matter is up to the state courts, and is not a federal matter warranting the involvement of the US Supreme Court. The Court agrees to hear the case, and sets the hearing date for December 1, 2000. (Supreme Court of the United States 11/22/2000 ; Certiorari Granted 11/24/2000 ; Guardian 11/25/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004; Leip 2008) “We believe we stand on both strong political and legal ground for fighting beyond Sunday,” says Gore campaign adviser Ron Klain. After the Court agrees to hear the case, Harris, the co-chair of Florida’s Bush campaign team, says she is ready to certify the election for George W. Bush tomorrow night regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing. “The Department of State is prepared for the earliest contingency, which would be certification Sunday evening,” her chief of staff Ben McKay says. “This will be done publicly regardless of the outcome, which is, of course, unknown at this time.” (Guardian 11/25/2000) Many Court observers, and some of the justices themselves, are surprised that the case is being heard. The Bush petition for certiorari, or for the Court to take the case, comes to Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose task it is to consider emergency motions from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Kennedy pushes his colleagues to take the case, arguing that the Court is the true and ultimate arbiter of such matters, though he concedes that the Bush petition is legally questionable. The Court’s conservative bloc—Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000), and Chief Justice William Rehnquist—agree to hear the case. (Court rules mandate that the consent of four justices, not a majority, is enough to hear a case.) The case is to be expedited in a way far different from the usual sedately paced Court proceedings. The sudden urgency has Court clerks scrambling to change their Thanksgiving plans and contacting the justices they work for. The clerks for the four liberal justices, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, are dismayed by the entire situation. “We changed our minds every five minutes about whether the fix was in,” one clerk later recalls. The liberal clerks find it almost impossible to believe that any Court justice would consider interceding in what is by constitutional definition an executive and legislative matter. Justice Stevens is not convinced of his conservative colleagues’ restraint, and begins drafting a dissent from what he fears will be a majority opinion granting Bush the election. The early draft focuses on the reasons why the Court should have never accepted the case. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The clerks for the four liberal justices at the Supreme Court—John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—continue their speculation as to whether the Court will actually attempt to decide the presidential election ((see November 20-21, 2000 and November 22-24, 2000), especially in light of Florida’s recent attempt to certify George W. Bush as the winner (see 7:30 p.m. November 26, 2000). At a November 29 dinner attended by clerks from several justices, a clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor tells the group that O’Connor is determined to overturn the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to go ahead with manual recounts of election ballots (see 3:00 p.m., November 16, 2000). One clerk recalls the O’Connor clerk saying, “she thought the Florida court was trying to steal the election and that they had to stop it.” O’Connor has the reputation of deciding an issue on her “gut,” then finding legal justifications for supporting her decision. Unbeknownst to anyone outside the Court, O’Connor has already made up her mind. Gore lawyers in particular will spend endless hours trying to craft arguments to sway her vote, when the actual case will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who originally wanted to accept the case. Many clerks of both liberal and conservative justices have little respect or regard for Kennedy. They consider him, according to a 2004 Vanity Fair article, “pompous and grandiloquent.” They believe he fills his office with elaborate, expensive decorations and trappings, including an elaborate chandelier, to give the idea of his power and importance. “The clerks saw his public persona—the very public way in which he boasted of often agonizing over decisions—as a kind of shtick, a very conspicuous attempt to exude fairness and appear moderate, even when he’d already made up his mind,” according to the Vanity Fair article. Conservative clerks suspect Kennedy of untoward liberal leanings, and have taken steps to ensure that the clerks he receives are ideologically sound. One liberal clerk later explains the conservative justices’ reasoning, saying, “The premise is that he can’t think by himself, and that he can be manipulated by someone in his second year of law school.” By now, Kennedy is surrounded by clerks from the hard-right Federalist Society. “He had four very conservative, Federalist Society white guys, and if you look at the portraits of law clerks on his wall, that’s true nine times out of 10,” another liberal law clerk will recall. “They were by far the least diverse group of clerks.” The conservative and liberal clerks do not socialize with one another as a rule, so it is unusual when, a day after the clerk dinner, Kevin Martin, a clerk for conservative justice Antonin Scalia, visits Stevens’s chambers. Martin went to Columbia Law School with Stevens’s clerk Anne Voigts, and he wants to see if he can explain to her the conservatives’ judicial point of view. However, two other Stevens clerks, Eduardo Penalver and Andrew Siegel, believe Martin is on some sort of reconnaissance mission, attempting to find out what grounds Stevens will cite to argue against overturning the Florida decision. Penalver and Siegel believe Martin is trying to manipulate Voigts, and Martin, after telling them to “F_ck off!” storms out of Stevens’s chambers. Clerks from O’Connor’s staff pay similar visits to other liberal justices, though these conversations do not end so contentiously. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004) O’Connor said to partygoers when the news networks announced the election for Al Gore, “This is terrible” (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000).
The US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the Bush presidential campaign’s challenge on constitutional grounds of Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on selective manual recounts (see November 20-21, 2000). The case is Bush v. Palm Beach Canvassing Board. Throngs of protesters surround the Supreme Court building. Inside, the justices’ questions indicate that they are divided on the legality of the Florida high court’s intervention, and some justices seem to think that Florida courts should resolve the issue. Justice Anthony Kennedy says, “We’re looking for a federal issue.” Justice Stephen Breyer asks, “What’s the consequence of our going one way or the other now in this case?” Observers will later describe Laurence Tribe, an experienced Supreme Court litigator representing the Gore campaign, as listless and flat, while Theodore Olson, arguing the Bush campaign’s case, is “more impressive.” Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia give the impression that they believe the Florida Supreme Court encroached on the Florida legislature’s bailiwick. Justices Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) express their irritation with the Gore arguments. When the arguments are over, the justices meet in chambers for the usual conference. At one end of the argument is Scalia, who wants to overturn the Florida decision and in essence award George W. Bush the election, and at the other, Justice John Paul Stevens, who wants the Court to stay out of the case altogether. Neither justice can command a majority among the other seven. Rehnquist begins drafting a ruling asking the Florida high court to clarify its ruling, to cite the state constitution in its decision (which the Bush team had argued would have been improper), or under state law (which the Bush team had found arguably permissible). All nine justices eventually sign onto Rehnquist’s opinion. A 2004 Vanity Fair article will observe: “The unanimity was, in fact, a charade; four of the justices had no beef at all with the Florida Supreme Court, while at least four others were determined to overturn it. But this way each side could claim victory: the liberal-to-moderate justices had spared the Court a divisive and embarrassing vote on the merits, one they’d probably have lost anyway. As for the conservatives, by eating up Gore’s clock—Gore’s lawyers had conceded that everything had to be resolved by December 12—they had all but killed his chances to prevail, and without looking needlessly partisan in the process. With the chastened Florida court unlikely to intervene again, the election could now stagger to a close, with the Court’s reputation intact, and with Bush all but certain to win.” On December 4, in a setback for the Gore campaign, the Court unanimously sets aside the Florida Supreme Court ruling and remands for clarification the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. (Supreme Court of the United States 12/4/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004; Leip 2008)
The US Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments in the lawsuit Bush v. Gore on the Florida recounts and election results. The Bush campaign has challenged the legality of a Florida Supreme Court ruling mandating the recounting of “undervote” ballots (see December 7-8, 2000). Bush lawyers argue that manual recounts violate the Constitution’s mandate of equal protection. Gore lawyers argue that the overriding issue is the importance of counting each vote cast. By the afternoon, the public is hearing the arguments via audiotapes. Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the Court’s most hardline conservatives, drew criticism when he said in an earlier opinion that the majority of the Court believed that George W. Bush had “a substantial probability of success,” a conclusion disputed by other justices such as John Paul Stevens. Scalia now says that he is inclined to vote in favor of Bush because, he says, “the counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm [to Bush]” (see December 8-9, 2000). (Kettle 12/11/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Leip 2008)
Kennedy Determines that 'Equal Protection' Is Key to Reversing Florida Decision - Al Gore’s lawyers, led by David Boies, believe that one of the Bush team’s arguments is flawed: the idea that the Florida Supreme Court exceeded its bounds restricts one appellate court far more than another appellate court is willing to condone. Unbeknownst to the Gore lawyers, Justice Anthony Kennedy agrees with the Gore team on this issue. Kennedy has no intention of finding in favor of the Gore position, but he does want the other four conservatives on the bench to come together behind the Bush argument that using different standards for ballot evaluation in different counties violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, an argument that most of the justices, litigants, and clerks have not considered up until now. As a practical matter, enforcing a single standard of ballot evaluation among the disparate Florida counties would be virtually impossible. And the Court under the leadership of Chief Justice William Rehnquist has, until now, been reluctant to interpret the equal-protection clause except in the narrowest of circumstances. Neither the Bush nor the Gore lawyers had given that argument a lot of attention, but it will prove the linchpin of the Court’s majority decision. As oral arguments proceed, and Kennedy pretends to not understand why this is a federal argument, clerks for the liberal justices find themselves sourly amused at Kennedy’s pretense. “What a joke,” one says to another. When Kennedy cues Bush lawyer Theodore Olson that he is interested in the equal protection clause as an argument—“I thought your point was that the process is being conducted in violation of the equal-protection clause, and it is standardless”—Olson quickly pivots and begins building his case under that rubric. Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter use the equal-protection argument to suggest that the best and simplest solution is simply to remand the case back to the Florida Supreme Court and ask it to set a uniform standard. Breyer has been working for days to convince Kennedy to join the four liberals in sending the case back to Florida, and for a time during the oral arguments, believes he may have succeeded. The liberal clerks have no such hopes; they believe, correctly, that Kennedy is merely pretending to consider the option. “He probably wanted to think of himself as having wavered,” one clerk later says. A brief private chat with Scalia and his clerks during oral arguments may have swayed Kennedy back into the fold, assuming he is wavering at all.
Demands for Identical Standards among All Florida Counties - Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) rails at Boies over the idea that the 67 counties cannot all have the same standards of ballot evaluation, and shows impatience with Boies’s explanation that for over 80 years, the Florida courts have put the idea of “voter intent” over identical ballot identification standards. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The US Supreme Court issues a ruling in Bush v. Gore (see December 11, 2000) that essentially declares George W. Bush (R-TX) the winner of the Florida presidential election, and thusly the winner of the US presidential election (see Mid-to-Late November 2000). The decision in Bush v. Gore is so complex that the Court orders that it not be used as precedent in future decisions. The 5-4 decision is split along ideological lines, with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) and Anthony Kennedy, two “moderate conservatives,” casting the deciding votes. In the per curium opinion, the Court finds: “Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date will be unconstitutional… we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed.… It is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work.” The decision says that the recounts as ordered by the Florida Supreme Court suffer from constitutional problems (see December 7-8, 2000). The opinion states that differing vote-counting standards from county to county and the lack of a single judicial officer to oversee the recount violate the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The majority opinion effectively precludes Vice President Al Gore from attempting to seek any other recounts on the grounds that a recount could not be completed by December 12, in time to certify a conclusive slate of electors. The Court sends the case back to the Florida Supreme Court “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.” Four justices issue stinging dissents. Justice John Paul Stevens writes: “One thing… is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer adds that “in this highly politicized matter, the appearance of a split decision runs the risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the court itself.” (Per Curiam (Bush et al v. Gore et al) 12/12/2000; Whitman et al. 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/17/2000; Leip 2008)
Drafting Opinions - After oral arguments concluded the day before, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that if they were to remand the case back to Florida, that order must go out immediately in light of the approaching deadline for certification of results; Stevens quickly wrote a one-paragraph opinion remanding the case back to Florida and circulated it, though with no real hope that it would be adopted. The five conservative justices are determined to reverse the Florida decision. For the rest of the evening and well into the next day, December 12, the justices work on their opinions. Stevens prepares the main dissent, with the other three liberal justices preparing their own concurrences. Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg find no support whatsoever for the equal-protection argument, and say so in their writings. Justices Breyer and David Souter give the idea some weight; Souter says that the idea of uniform standards is a good one, but these standards should be created and imposed by the Florida judiciary or legislature. Stopping the recounts solves nothing, he writes. It soon becomes apparent that neither Kennedy nor O’Connor share Rehnquist’s ideas on the jurisdiction of the Florida court, and will not join him in that argument. Kennedy writes the bulk of the majority opinion; as predicted, his opinion focuses primarily on the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The liberal justices and clerks find Kennedy’s reasoning that stopping the recounts is the only way to ensure equal protection entirely unconvincing. Anthony Scalia circulates a sealed memo complaining about the tone of some of the dissents, asking that the dissenters not call into question the Court’s credibility. (His memo prompts Ginsburg to remove a footnote from her dissent commenting on Florida’s disenfranchised African-American voters; some of the liberal clerks see the incident as Ginsburg being bullied into compliance by Scalia. Subsequent investigations show that thousands of legitimate African-Americans were indeed disenfranchised—see November 7, 2000.) Kennedy sends a memo accusing the dissenters of “trashing the Court,” and says that the dissenters actually agree with his equal-protection argument far more than they want to admit. When he has a line inserted into his opinion reading, “Eight Justices of the Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court that demand a remedy,” some of Stevens’s clerks angrily telephone Kennedy’s clerks and accuse them of misrepresenting Stevens’s position. They demand that the line be removed. Kennedy refuses, and Stevens rewrites his opinion so that he is no longer associated with the position. Kennedy is forced to rewrite the statement to say that “seven,” not “eight” justices agree with his position. One of Stevens’s clerks, Eduardo Penalver, tells Kennedy clerk Grant Dixton that what Kennedy had done was disgusting and unprofessional. Breyer and his clerks are also unhappy about Kennedy’s assertion, but take no action. The line prompts many in the media to claim, falsely, that the decision is a 7-2 split and not a 5-4. The main document, a short unsigned opinion halting the recounts, is written by Kennedy. Two portions are particularly notable: Kennedy’s assertion that the ruling applies only to Bush, and not to future decisions; and that the Court had only reluctantly accepted the case. “That infuriated us,” one liberal clerk later recalls. “It was typical Kennedy bullsh_t, aggrandizing the power of the Court while ostensibly wringing his hands about it.” Rehnquist, Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas join the decision, though Scalia is unimpressed with Kennedy’s writing and reasoning. Reportedly, he later calls it a “piece of sh_t,” though he will deny making the characterization.
Lack of Consensus - The lack of consensus between the conservative justices is relatively minor. Among the four liberal justices, though, it is quite pronounced—though all four wish not to end the recounts, only Stevens has a strong position and has stayed with it throughout the process. Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer were far less certain of their opposition, and resultingly, their dissents, unlike the impassioned Stevens dissent, are relatively pallid. Some of the liberal clerks say that the four’s lack of consensus helped the solid conservative majority stay solid: “They gave just enough cover to the five justices and their defenders in the press and academia so that it was impossible to rile up the American people about these five conservative ideologues stealing the election.”
Final Loss - Gore, reading the opinion, finally realizes that he and his campaign never had a chance with the five conservative justices, though they had hoped that either O’Connor or Kennedy would join the four liberals (see (November 29, 2000)). He congratulates his legal team, led by David Boies, and commends it for making it so difficult for the Court to justify its decision. Some reports will circulate that Souter is depressed over the decision, with Newsweek reporting that he later tells a group of Russian judges that the decision was “the most outrageous, indefensible thing” the Court had ever done. He also reportedly says that had he had “one more day,” he could have convinced Kennedy to turn. However, Souter will deny the reports, and those who know him will say that such comments would be out of character for him. For her part, O’Connor will express surprise that anyone could be angry over the decision. As for Scalia, some Court observers believe that his open partisanship during the process will cost him any chance he may have had to be named chief justice. (Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
The Supreme Court rules in the case of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. The case addresses limitations on so-called “soft money,” or contributions to a political party not designated specifically for supporting a single candidate, that were imposed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), often known as the McCain-Feingold law after its two Senate sponsors (see March 27, 2002). A three-judge panel has already struck down some of McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on soft-money donations, a ruling that was stayed until the Court could weigh in. Generally, the Court rules that the “soft money” ban does not exceed Congress’s authority to regulate elections, and does not violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause. The ruling is a 5-4 split, with the majority opinion written by liberal Justice John Paul Stevens and his conservative colleague Sandra Day O’Connor. The opinion finds that the “minimal” restrictions on free speech are outweighed by the government’s interest in preventing “both the actual corruption threatened by large financial contributions and… the appearance of corruption” that might result from those contributions. “Money, like water, will always find an outlet,” the justices write, and the government must take steps to prevent corporate donors from finding ways to subvert the contribution limits. The majority is joined by liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, and the four other conservatives on the court—Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—dissent. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003; Oyez (.org) 2011) The case represents the consolidation of 11 separate lawsuits brought by members of Congress, political parties, unions, and advocacy groups; it is named for Senator Mitch McConnell, who sued the FEC on March 27, 2002, the same day the bill was signed into law. Due to the legal controversy expected to be generated by the law and the need to settle it prior to the next federal election, a provision was included in the BCRA that provided for the case to be heard first by a special three-judge panel and then appealed directly to the Supreme Court. This District of Columbia district court panel, comprised of two district court judges and one circuit court judge, was inundated with numerous amicus briefs, almost 1,700 pages of related briefs, and over 100,000 pages of witness testimony. The panel upheld the BCRA’s near-absolute ban on the usage of soft money in federal elections, and the Supreme Court agrees with that finding. However, the Court reverses some of the BCRA’s limitations on the usage of soft money for “generic party activities” such as voter registration and voter identification. The district court overturned the BCRA’s primary definition of “noncandidate expenditures,” but upheld the “backup” definition as provided by the law. Both courts allow the restrictions on corporate and union donations to stand, as well as the exception for nonprofit corporations. The Court upholds much of the BCRA’s provisions on disclosure and coordinated expenditures. The lower court rejected the so-called “millionaire provisions,” a rejection the Supreme Court upholds. A provision banning contributions by minors was overturned by the lower court, and the Court concurs. The lower court found the provision requiring broadcasters to collect and disclose records of broadcast time purchased for political activities unconstitutional, but the Court disagrees and reinstates the requirement. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003) McConnell had asked lawyer James Bopp Jr., a veteran of anti-campaign finance lawsuits and the head of McConnell’s James Madison Center for Free Speech, to take part in the legal efforts of the McConnell case. However, before the case appeared before the Supreme Court, McConnell dropped Bopp from the legal team due to a dispute over tactics. (Kirkpatrick 1/25/2010) The 2010 Citizens United decision will partially overturn McConnell (see January 21, 2010).
The Supreme Court hears oral arguments for and against the release of records pertaining to Vice President Cheney’s energy task force (the National Energy Policy Development Group—see May 16, 2001). The case is Cheney v. US District Court for the District of Columbia (03-0475) (see December 15, 2003). Two public interest groups, the environmentalist Sierra Club and the conservative government watchdog organization Judicial Watch, have joined to argue for the release of the records, saying that because the task force deliberations included energy industry executives and lobbyists, the task force is subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires disclosure of the work of advisory groups that include non-federal employees. Bush administration lawyers, spearheaded by Solicitor General Theodore Olson, argue that releasing those records would violate the concept of “separation of powers.” The administration also argues that releasing the records, most pertinently the meetings between Cheney, his aides, and officials from energy corporations and lobbying firms, would damage the White House’s ability to receive candid advice. “This case is about the separation of powers and the president’s discretion to receive the opinions of subordinates,” Olson tells the court; Olson has resisted submitting task force documents even to the Court, saying that even that so-called “discovery” process would violate the Constitutional separation of powers. Lawyers for the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch argue that Cheney’s contacts with industry executives and lobbyists were improper while he was developing government policy that benefited their businesses. They are demanding to know whether energy lobbyists helped shape the government’s long-term energy policies. Lower courts agreed with Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, and Cheney, with the Justice Department, has successfully ramrodded the case into the Supreme Court with unprecedented speed.
Justices Question Breadth of Requests - Justice Antonin Scalia, who refused to recuse himself from deliberations after accompanying Cheney on a duck-hunting trip in January, is one of the justices most favoring the government’s case. But even more moderate justices such as Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg question whether the information request is too broad and inclusive. As for the White House, it argues that neither the courts nor Congress have any right to make any inquiries into the decisions of federal agencies and officials. Sierra Club lawyer David Bookbinder says the White House appears to have violated laws supporting open government: “What the panel said to energy executives was: Help us decide what the energy policy should be. A line has been crossed because the process should have been transparent. The panel was inordinately influenced by the energy industry.” Cheney has said that the executive branch must defend itself against the “continual encroachment by Congress.” The White House has already turned over some 40,000 documents from the task force after a lower court ruling compelled it to do so (see July 17, 2003), but the lawsuit before the Supreme Court says that another 100,000 potentially relevant documents and files remain secret. (Curry 4/26/2004; Greenhouse 4/28/2004; Mears 6/24/2004)
Cheney 'Beyond the Reach of the Law?' - In a legal analysis of the case, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean calls the case “extraordinary,” and notes that Cheney “contends that he is, in essence, beyond the reach of the law. It began as a set of rather pedestrian discovery matters in two consolidated civil lawsuits. Now, however, because of Cheney’s stance, it could be a landmark Constitutional decision.” Dean sees the case as an opportunity for Cheney, with the assistance of Olson and Scalia, “to expand executive powers.” (Dean 3/26/2004)
Case Sent Back to Lower Court - The Court will vote to send the case back to the District of Columbia Appeals Court for further adjudication (see June 24, 2004). That court will rule in Cheney’s favor (see May 10, 2005).
The Supreme Court rules in the case of Cheney v. US District Court for the District of Columbia (03-0475), in which two organizations, Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, are attempting to force the White House to reveal information about the secret deliberations of Vice President Cheney’s energy task force (see April 27, 2004). Neither side gets what it asks for in the 7-2 ruling, as the Court sends the case back to the US Court of Appeals for further adjudication, with an order for that court to take a second look at its ruling that Cheney must allow a judge to review the task force documents (see August 2, 2002). Five justices—Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and John Paul Stevens—vote to send the case back to the appeals court. Two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, vote to send the case all the way back to the original trial court, concurring with the majority. The Court’s two most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, vote to resolve the matter entirely in Cheney’s favor. Judge Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, instructs the appeals court—and all other courts who might subsequently hear such a case—to use a legal standard far more aligned with the executive branch’s claim of immunity from disclosure. Courts must afford “presidential confidentiality the greatest protection consistent with the fair administration of justice,” Kennedy writes, to protect the executive branch from being sued. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will later write that the Court may have avoided making a firm ruling because it did not want to wrangle with the issue of separation of powers, and the privilege of executive branch secrecy, in an election year. While most media and court observers call the decision a “punt” of little import, at least one, former Justice Department official Shannen Coffin, sees it differently. In a column for the National Review, Coffin celebrates the ruling, writing that due to “the vice president’s resolute assertion that he and the president should have the right to receive in confidence the advice necessary to the performance of their duties,” the White House has won a “major victory” in expanding its power to keep its procedures secret, regardless of the appeals court’s eventual ruling (see May 10, 2005). (Coffin 6/25/2004; Dean 7/2/2004; Savage 2007, pp. 167-168) The appeals court will agree with Thomas and Scalia, and rule in Cheney’s favor (see May 10, 2005).
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 dismisses an appeal by the political advocacy group Citizens United (CU) that argued the group’s First Amendment rights had been violated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The Court had agreed to hear CU’s case that it should be allowed to broadcast a partisan political documentary about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Hillary: The Movie, on cable television networks in the days before critical primary elections (see January 10-16, 2008). The Court did not rule on the merits of the case, but instead ruled that CU should have filed its case first with the federal appeals court in Washington. The ruling does not dismiss the case entirely, but makes it unlikely that the Court will rule on the campaign law issues surrounding the case (see March 27, 2002) before the November 2008 elections. Lawyer James Bopp, representing CU, says, “It is our intention to get the case expeditiously resolved on the merits in the district court, and then if we are unsuccessful there, to appeal” again to the Court. Bopp accuses Justice Department lawyers of trying to slow down the case to prevent it being resolved before the election. CU also wants to release a similar documentary about the other leading Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008), in a similar fashion to its planned widespread release of the Clinton film. Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court’s more liberal members, says in the order dismissing the appeal that had the case been taken up, he would have affirmed the previous decision in favor of the FEC. None of the other justices made any public statement about the case. The case will be heard by the Washington, DC, federal appeals court. (Richey 3/24/2008) The appeals court will find against CU, and the organization will reapply to the Court for a hearing, an application which will be granted (see March 15, 2009).
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)
The second round of arguments in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, and June 29, 2009) is heard by the US Supreme Court. The first round of arguments, which unexpectedly focused on an unplanned examination of government censorship, ended in a 5-4 split, with the majority of conservative justices readying a decision to essentially gut the entire body of federal campaign finance law in the name of the First Amendment (see March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), but an angry dissent by Justice David Souter that accused Chief Justice John Roberts of failing to follow the procedures of the Court in rendering the opinion prompted Roberts to temporarily withdraw the opinion and offer a rare second argument (see May 14, 2012). Newly appointed Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues her first case before the Court. Citizens United, the plaintiff, is represented by former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, a veteran of Court arguments, quickly discerns from the new round of “Questions Presented” that the Court is prepared to not only find in the plaintiff’s favor, but to use the case to render a broad verdict against campaign finance law as a whole. Olson argues cautiously, not wanting to extend the case farther than the Court may desire. The four minority liberal justices, knowing the case is lost, try their best in their questioning to raise awareness in the public once news reports of the arguments are made public. One of those justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, asks: “Mr. Olson, are you taking the position that there is no difference” between the First Amendment rights of a corporation and those of an individual? “A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights. So is there any distinction that Congress could draw between corporations and natural human beings for purposes of campaign finance?” Olson replies, “What the Court has said in the First Amendment context… over and over again is that corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment” (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). Ginsburg follows up by asking, “Would that include today’s mega-corporations, where many of the investors may be foreign individuals or entities?” Olson replies, “The Court in the past has made no distinction based upon the nature of the entity that might own a share of a corporation.” Kagan then takes her turn, and begins: “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, I have three very quick points to make about the government position. The first is that this issue has a long history. For over a hundred years, Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections, and this Court has never questioned that judgment.” She begins to make her second point before Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the conservative majority, interrupts her. In 2012, author and reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write that Kagan almost certainly knows hers is a legal “suicide mission,” and can only hope that her arguments may sway the Court to narrow its decision and leave some of the existing body of campaign finance law intact. She tells Roberts later in the questioning period, “Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses, if it has to lose, the answer is yes.” Justice John Paul Stevens, the most senior of the liberal minority, attempts to assist Kagan in making her argument, suggesting that the Court should content itself with a narrow ruling, perhaps creating an exception in the McCain-Feingold law (see March 27, 2002) for the plaintiff’s documentary (see January 10-16, 2008) or for “ads that are financed exclusively by individuals even though they are sponsored by a corporation.” Kagan agrees with Stevens’s proposal. Stevens then says: “Nobody has explained why that wouldn’t be a proper solution, not nearly as drastic. Why is that not the wisest narrow solution of the problem before us?” Kagan, with help from Ginsburg, undoes some of the damage done by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart during the first argument, where he inadvertently gave the conservative justices the “censorship” argument by which they could justify a broader verdict. Ginsburg asks: “May I ask you one question that was highlighted in the prior argument, and that was if Congress could say no TV and radio ads, could it also say no newspaper ads, no campaign biographies? Last time, the answer was yes, Congress could, but it didn’t. Is that still the government’s answer?” Kagan replies: “The government’s answer has changed, Justice Ginsburg. We took the Court’s own reaction to some of those other hypotheticals very seriously. We went back, we considered the matter carefully.” Unlike Stewart, Kagan specifically says that the government cannot ban books. But the censorship argument remains. After the arguments, the justices render the same verdict: a 5-4 split favoring Citizens United. Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas vote in the majority, while Ginsburg, Stevens, and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor vote in the minority. The second round of questioning, with its much broader scope, gives Roberts and his conservative colleagues the justification they need to render a broad verdict that would gut existing campaign finance law (see January 21, 2010). (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010) In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” (Savage 1/21/2010; OMB Watch 1/27/2010; Richey and Feldmann 2/2/2010; National Public Radio 2012)
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010)
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010; Sherman 1/21/2010; Richey and Feldmann 2/2/2010)
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” (Rucker 1/22/2010)
A number of conservative media outlets accuse President Obama of engaging in “demagoguery” in his recent comments that warned the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) could open the door for foreign corporations to contribute money for use in American elections (see January 27-29, 2010). (Parker 1/28/2010) National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru writes, “The most demagogic moment (so far!) came when the president claimed, falsely, that the Supreme Court had given a green light to foreign corporations to run political ads.” (Ponnuru 1/27/2010) Law professor and former Federal Elections Commission member Bradley A. Smith echoes Ponnuru’s accusation, writing that Obama “engaged in demagoguery of the worst kind.… The president’s statement is false.… This is either blithering ignorance of the law or demagoguery of the worst kind.” (Smith 1/27/2010) Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK), the vice-presidential candidate on the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008, says on Fox News that Obama’s criticism “may not be true,” and accuses Obama of “embarrassing our Supreme Court.” She says: “This is why people are disenchanted and are becoming more and more disengaged really from what their government is doing, because when we see an issue like this—words spoken that may not be true coming from our president and embarrassing our Supreme Court and not respecting the separation of powers—we have a problem. And that’s illustrated there by that justice mouthing those words, ‘not true.’ Now, one or the other is being disingenuous here—either our president in what he just claimed, or the Supreme Court justice.” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough calls Obama’s warning “just not the truth,” saying that Obama’s statements were “not based in fact [or] the law.… So the president was not served well last night; he went out and said something that just wasn’t the truth. And I’m sure that that was very difficult for the Supreme Court to sit there and have the president tell America and the world these jokers on the front row just opened up American campaigns to foreign entities when that in fact is just not the truth.” (Parker 1/28/2010) Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh tells his listeners, “It’s clear the president didn’t know what he was talking about or he was just out-and-out lying because he knows he’s not going to be fact-checked on matters like that by most in the state-controlled media.” (Gregory 1/28/2010) Prominent conservative blogger “Allahpundit” accuses Obama of “demagoguing the First Amendment” (HotAir (.com) 1/27/2010) , an accusation echoed by conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds, who responds to Allahpundit’s post by writing that Obama’s “demagoguery [will turn] into a negative for him.” (Glenn Reynolds 1/27/2010) The next day, the Wall Street Journal will demand that Obama “get his facts straight” about the issue (see January 29, 2010). The liberal media watchdog organization Media Matters notes that Obama’s concerns were echoed by the four dissenting Supreme Court Justices in the Citizens United decision, as noted in the dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. The majority decision, Stevens wrote, “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.” Cornell law professor Michael Dorf agreed with Stevens, telling a reporter that “[i]t is a plausible inference from the court’s opinion that [foreign] money can’t be restricted.” Dorf’s position is echoed by campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer and the leaders of the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, Media Matters notes. (Parker 1/28/2010) And the day after the decision was rendered, Smith, who accused Obama of either “blithering ignorance… or demagoguery,” told a reporter that though the law prohibits foreign nationals from contributing money to groups involved in election politics, “To the extent that there may be some foreign corporations that don’t fall under the category of foreign nationals [and could contribute to election organizations], that might be something Congress can deal with.” (Weigel 1/22/2010)
US Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer appear during a presentation before the South Carolina Bar, and take questions about the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). Scalia was in the majority of that 5-4 decision, and Breyer was in the minority. Scalia refuses to take responsibility for the transformation of the US political system after the decision (see January 21-22, 2010, August 2, 2010, September 20, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, May 5, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, December 6, 2011, December 19, 2011, and January 6, 2012), saying that the Court merely decides whether laws and policies are legal under the Constitution. Elected lawmakers are the ones who must change things, he says, and the voters who often reward the candidates who spend the most money. “If the system seems crazy to you, don’t blame it on the Court,” Scalia says. Besides, Scalia says, voters are free to turn off the television or the radio if they do not like the barrage of political advertisements being presented by the array of “independent” super PACs that have grown up in the wake of the decision (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, and January 4, 2012). “I don’t care who is doing the speech—the more the merrier,” he says. “People are not stupid. If they don’t like it, they’ll shut it off.” For his part, Breyer does not directly criticize the decision, but notes that America must respect the decisions handed down by the judiciary, and briefly summarizes both sides of the argument. “There are real problems when people want to spend lots of money on a candidate… they’ll drown out the people who don’t have a lot of money,” he says. (Associated Press 1/21/2012) Ian Millhiser, a constitutional law expert writing for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, writes that “Scalia’s attempt to shift blame is, frankly, ridiculous.” The US campaign finance system was anything but perfect before Citizens United, he writes, but Congress banned corporate money in politics 65 years ago (see June 23, 1947). That ban was in place until the Court overturned it in its decision. And in the wake of the Citizens United decision, a lower court declared that “independent expenditures” could be made on an essentially unlimited basis (see March 26, 2010). Millhiser shows that of the top 20 spenders in the 2012 election, 17 are conservatives and Republicans, and thusly, the Republicans who control the US House and wield outsized influence in the Senate will not move to repair a system that patently favors their party: “Republican lawmakers are more than smart enough to figure this out, and that gives them all the incentive they need to block any attempt to fix the mess Citizens United created.” (Millhiser 1/23/2012)
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. (Coyle 2/10/2012; Denniston 2/17/2012; US Supreme Court 2/17/2012 ) The US Supreme Court will strike down the Montana ruling (see June 25, 2012).
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 ; SCOTUSBlog 6/25/2012; Vicini 6/25/2012; Randall 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.” (Weiner 6/25/2012)