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A federal appeals court rules 2-1 in favor of Theodore Olson, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who has refused to comply with a subpoena issued as part of an independent counsel’s investigation into political interference at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Olson’s position is that the independent counsel is illegal under the Constitution, as interpreted by the so-called “unitary executive theory” (see April 30, 1986). One of the appellate court judges, Carter appointee Ruth Bader Ginsberg, argues that the independent counsel law is perfectly constitutional, and fits with the Founding Fathers’ vision of a system of “checks and balances” among the three governmental branches. But Reagan appointees Laurence Silberman and Stephen Williams outvote Ginsberg. Silberman, who writes the majority opinion, is a longtime advocate of increased executive power, and calls the independent counsel law “inconsistent with the doctrine of a unitary executive.” The Supreme Court will strike down Silberman’s ruling (see June 1988), but the independent counsel will not bring charges against Olson. (Savage 2007, pp. 46-49)
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)
A passenger on Flight 77, Barbara Olson, calls her husband, Theodore (Ted) Olson, who is solicitor general at the Justice Department. (San Francisco Chronicle 7/23/2004) Ted Olson is in his Justice Department office watching news of the attacks on the World Trade Center on television when his wife calls. A few days later, he will recall: “She told me that she had been herded to the back of the plane. She mentioned that they had used knives and box cutters to hijack the plane. She mentioned that the pilot had announced that the plane had been hijacked.” (CNN 9/14/2001) He tells her that two planes have hit the WTC. (Harnden 3/5/2002) Barbara Olson says she feels nobody is taking charge. (CNN 9/12/2001) Ted Olson doesn’t know if she is near the pilots, but at one point she asks: “What shall I tell the pilot? What can I tell the pilot to do?” (CNN 9/14/2001) Then the call is cut off without warning. (Isikoff 9/29/2001)
Ted Olson's Recollections Vague - Ted Olson’s recollection of the call’s timing will be extremely vague. He will say the call “must have been 9:15 [a.m.] or 9:30 [a.m.]. Someone would have to reconstruct the time for me.” (CNN 9/14/2001) Other accounts place the call around 9:25 a.m. (Tanfani and Chardy 9/14/2001; Wald 9/15/2001; Maranis 9/21/2001) The call is said to last about a minute. (Fisher and Phillips 9/12/2001) By some accounts, Ted Olson’s message to his wife, that planes have hit the WTC, comes later, in a second phone call. (Maranis 9/21/2001) According to one account, Barbara Olson calls her husband from inside a bathroom. (Arkell and France 9/12/2001) But in another, she is near a pilot, and in yet another she is near two pilots. (Johnson 11/23/2001)
Conflicting Accounts of Type of Phone Used - Ted Olson’s accounts of how his wife makes her calls are also conflicting. Three days after 9/11, he will say: “I found out later that she was having, for some reason, to call collect and was having trouble getting through. You know how it is to get through to a government institution when you’re calling collect.” He says he doesn’t know what kind of phone she uses, but he has “assumed that it must have been on the airplane phone, and that she somehow didn’t have access to her credit cards. Otherwise, she would have used her cell phone and called me.” (Olson 9/14/2001) Why Barbara Olson would have needed access to her credit cards to call him on her cell phone is not explained. However, in another interview on the same day, Ted Olson will say his wife uses a cell phone and her call may be cut off “because the signals from cell phones coming from airplanes don’t work that well.” (CNN 9/14/2001) Six months later, he will claim she calls collect, “using the phone in the passengers’ seats.” (Harnden 3/5/2002) However, it is not possible to call on seatback phones, collect or otherwise, without a credit card, which would render making a collect call moot. Many other details in Ted Olson’s accounts are conflicting, and he will fault his memory and say he “tends to mix the two [calls from his wife] up because of the emotion of the events.” (CNN 9/14/2001)
Call Supposedly Made through Secretary - According to official reports, Barbara Olson is able to reach her husband through a secretary, Lori Lynn Keyton, twice, at around 9:15 a.m. The first call is collect and comes through a live operator, while the second is direct. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001 ; Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/14/2001; 9/11 Commission 5/20/2004)
Theodore (Ted) Olson, the Justice Department’s Solicitor General, calls the Justice Department’s control center to relate his wife Barbara’s call from Flight 77. Accounts vary whether the Justice Department already knows of the hijack or not. (Fisher and Phillips 9/12/2001; Channel 4 News (London) 9/13/2001; Wald 9/15/2001) Olson merely says, “They just absorbed the information. And they promised to send someone down right away.” He assumes they then “pass the information on to the appropriate people.” (Olson 9/14/2001)
As Bush administration lawyers warn that Vice President Cheney and his Pentagon allies are setting the government up for defeat in the courts with their hardline advice on interrogation techniques (see Late 2001-Early 2002, January 25, 2002, April 2002 and After, and August 1, 2002) and indefinite detentions (see After September 11, 2001 and December 2001-January 2002), one of the uneasiest of Justice Department lawyers is Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Cheney and Olson have similar views on the expansion of presidential powers, but his job in the administration is to win court cases. Olson is not sure that Cheney’s legal arguments are tenable. Olson is particularly worried about two pending cases, those of US citizens Jose Padilla (see June 10, 2002) and Yaser Esam Hamdi (see December 2001 and August 16, 2002). Both have been declared enemy combatants and denied access to lawyers. Olson warns that federal courts will not go along with that provision, but he finds himself opposed by CIA and Pentagon officials. When Olson and other lawyers propose that Padilla and Hamdi be granted lawyers, Cheney’s chief lawyer, David Addington, beats back their proposal because, says deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan, “that was the position of his client, the vice president.” The issue comes to a head in the West Wing office of Alberto Gonzales, the White House’s chief legal counsel. Four officials with direct knowledge of the meeting later recall the chain of events. Olson has the support of associate White House counsel Bradford Berenson, a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Berenson says that Kennedy, the Court’s swing vote, will never accept absolute presidential authority to declare a US citizen an enemy and lock him away without benefit of counsel. Another former Kennedy law clerk, White House lawyer Brett Kavanaugh, had made the same argument earlier. Addington, representing Cheney in the meeting, accuses Berenson of surrendering presidential authority on what he calls a fool’s prophecy about the Court; Berenson retorts by accusing Addington of “know-nothingness.” Gonzales listens quietly as the Justice Department and his own staff line up against Addington. He finally makes a decision: in favor of Cheney and Addington. (Gellman and Becker 6/25/2007)
District Court Judge John Bates rules against the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, in its attempt to force Vice President Cheney to disclose some of his Energy Task Force documents (see January 29, 2001 and May 16, 2001). The judge writes, “This case, in which neither a House of Congress nor any congressional committee has issued a subpoena for the disputed information or authorized this suit, is not the setting for such unprecedented judicial action.” (Associated Press 12/9/2002) Bates is a Republican who worked as the deputy independent counsel to Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation, and was appointed to the bench by President Bush in 2001. (Savage 2007, pp. 112) The GAO later declines to appeal the ruling (see February 7, 2003). In a similar suit being filed by Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, the Bush administration has successfully delayed deadlines forcing these documents to be turned over. (Yost 12/6/2002) That case will eventually be decided in the administration’s favor (see May 10, 2005).
Cheney Pushes Back - Unfortunately, the ruling’s claim of no Congressional involvement is somewhat misleading. The original request for information came from two ranking House members, Henry Waxman (D-CA) of the Committee on Government Reform and John Conyers (D-MI) of the Energy and Commerce Committee (see April 19 - May 4, 2001). Waxman and Conyers followed standard procedure by writing to David Walker, head of the GAO, to request information about who was meeting with the task force and what the task force was doing (May 8, 2001. Instead of complying with the request, Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington, replied that the task force was not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and therefore not bound by law to provide such information (see May 16 - 17, 2001). Addington later challenged the GAO’s authority, saying that it was trying “to intrude into the heart of Executive deliberations, including deliberations among the President, the Vice President, members of the President’s Cabinet, and the President’s immediate assistants, which the law protects to ensure the candor in Executive deliberation necessary to effective government.” The GAO was not asking for such information; former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2004, “It was clear [Addington] was looking to pick a fight.”
Tug of War - The GAO advised Addington that it did indeed have the legal power to examine the deliberations of such entities as the task force, and provided Addington both the statutory law and the legislative history, which flatly contradicted Addington’s refusal. The GAO also noted that it was “not inquiring into the deliberative process but [was] focused on gathering factual information regarding the process of developing President Bush’s National Energy Policy.” The GAO even narrowed the scope of its original request, asking only for the names of those who had worked with the task force, and the dates (see July 31, 2001). But this provoked further resistance from Cheney and his office, with Cheney publicly stating on numerous occasions that the GAO was unlawfully trying to intrude into the deliberative process. Walker’s patience ran out in January 2002, and he notified the White House and Congress that the GAO was taking the administration to court (see February 22, 2002).
Hardball in Federal Court - Usually the case will be handled by lawyers from the Justice Department’s Civil Division. But this case is much more important to the White House to be left to the usual group of attorneys. Instead, this lawsuit is one of the very few to be handled by a special unit operating under the direct supervision of Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement and Clement’s boss, Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, the lawyer who spearheaded the team that successfully argued the December 2000 Bush v. Gore case that awarded George W. Bush the presidency. Dean later learns that this special team was created specifically to find and handle cases that they can take to the Supreme Court in order to rewrite existing law, mostly laws that restrict the power of the presidency (see January 21, 2001). Many career attorneys at the Justice Department will become so offended by the existence and the agenda of this special legal team that they will resign their positions. The administraton sent a strong signal to Judge Bates when it sent Olson, who has argued many times before the Supreme Court, to argue the government’s case in his court. Dean will write that Bates, a recent Bush appointee and a veteran of the Whitewater investigation, “got the message.” He knows this case is slated to go to the Supreme Court if it doesn’t go the way the White House wants.
Standing the Law On Its Head - According to Dean, Bates turns the entire body of statutory law overseeing the GAO and its powers to compel information from the executive branch on its head. He rules that the GAO lacks the “standing to sue,” saying that it doesn’t have enough of a legal stake in the controversy to have a role in trying to compel information. Bates, flying in the face of over eight decades of law and precedent, rules that, in essence, the GAO is merely an agent of Congress, and because neither the GAO nor Walker had suffered injury because of the task force’s refusal to comply with its request, the GAO has no legal recourse against the executive branch. Bates hangs much of his ruling on the fact that Congress has not yet subpoenaed the White House for the task force information. Thusly, Bates guts the entire structure of enforcement authority the GAO has as part of its statutory mandate. Bates does not go as far as the Justice Department wants, by not specifically ruling that the entire GAO statute is unconstitutional, but otherwise Bates’s ruling is a complete victory for the White House. (Dean 2004, pp. 76-80) Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write that “Bates’s ruling creates a legislative Catch-22 for Democrats.” Because the GOP is the majority party, and because GOP Congressional leaders refuse to subpoena the White House on virtually any issue or conflict, no such subpoenas as Bates is mandating are likely to ever be granted by Republican committee chairmen. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 14) In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write that Bates’s ruling severely eroded the GAO’s “ability to threaten to file a lawsuit [and] damaged the congressional watchdog’s capability to persuade executive branch agencies to comply with its requests for information.… Bates had established a principle that, if left undisturbed, could change the attitudes of executive branch officials when the GAO asked for documents they did not want to disclose.” (Savage 2007, pp. 112-113)
Solicitor General Theodore Olson submits a response to the request that the Supreme Court reopen the 1953 state secrets case US v Reynolds (see February 26, 2003). Olson argues that once a decision has been made, it should be respected—“the law favors finality,” he writes. More surprisingly to the plaintiffs and their lawyers, Olson argues that there was no fraud perpetuated in the original case, a position hard to defend in the face of the declassified accident reports that were the heart of that case (see February 2000 and February 26, 2003). The accident reports never contained military secrets or secret information of any kind, a claim that the Court’s 1953 decision hinged on, but Olson argues that because of the wording of the claims—releasing the reports to the original plaintiffs “might lead to disclosure” of classified information—then the old claims of protecting state secrets are still technically valid (see March 9, 1953). Olson echoes the author of the original Supreme Court opinion, Fred Vinson, by reminding the Court that “[t]he claim of privilege in this case was made in 1950, at a time in the nation’s history—during the twilight of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War—when the country, and especially the military, was uniquely sensitive to need for ‘vigorous preparation for national defense.‘… The allegations of fraud made by the petition in this case… must be viewed in that light.” The lawyer for the plaintiffs in the petition, Wilson Brown, is both angered and impressed by what he calls Olson’s “remarkable obfuscation.” By hiding behind the vague wording of the original claims of state secrets, Olson is implying that this case must turn on factual issues—and therefore should be heard in a lower court, not the Supreme Court. Brown, in his response co-written by colleague Jeff Almeida, calls Olson’s arguments “disingenuous” and insists that the plaintiffs’ original case “had been vitiated through fraud.” (Siegel 2008, pp. 261-264)
Attorney General John Ashcroft is visited by a squad of top White House and Justice Department officials just hours after Ashcroft underwent emergency surgery for severe, acute pancreatis, and is still recuperating in intensive care. The White House officials attempt to persuade the barely lucid Ashcroft to give his formal approval for the secret National Security Agency warrantless wiretapping surveillance program (see Early 2002), which requires the Justice Department to periodically review and approve it. (Shapiro 5/15/2007; Eggen and Kane 5/16/2007; Eggen 6/7/2007; Kellman 6/7/2007)
Comey, Goldsmith Rush to Head Off Aides - Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies to the incident before the Senate Judiciary Committee over three years later (see May 15, 2007). Comey will recall that he and Ashcroft had decided not to recertify the surveillance program due to their concerns over its legality and its lack of oversight. On March 9, Ashcroft was rushed to the hospital with severe pancreatis. As per Justice Department procedures, Comey became acting attorney general for the duration of Ashcroft’s incapacity. The next night, just hours after Ashcroft underwent emergency surgery for the removal of his gallbladder, Comey receives an urgent phone call from Ashcroft’s aide, David Ayres, who himself has just spoken with Ashcroft’s wife Janet. Ayres tells Comey that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and White House chief of staff Andrew Card are en route to Ashcroft’s hospital room to pressure Ashcroft to sign off on the program recertification. A furious Comey telephones FBI director Robert Mueller, and the two, accompanied by aides, race separately through the Washington, DC streets with sirens wailing to reach Ashcroft’s hospital room; they beat Gonzales and Card to the room by a matter of minutes. “I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that,” Comey will testify, and will add that to him, Ashcroft appears “pretty bad off.” En route, Mueller instructs the security detail protecting Ashcroft not to allow Card or Gonzales to eject Comey from the hospital room. Card and Gonzales enter just minutes later. (Eggen and Kane 5/16/2007; PBS 5/16/2007) “And it was only a matter of minutes that the door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card,” Comey will testify. “They came over and stood by the bed, greeted the attorney general very briefly, and then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there—to seek his approval for a matter.” (Shapiro 5/15/2007) Gonzales is holding an envelope containing an executive order from Bush. He tells Ashcroft that he needs to sign off on the order, thereby giving the wiretapping program Justice Department authorization to continue unabated. Comey will testify that Ashcroft “lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me. [Ashcroft then adds] ‘But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general,’” pointing at Comey. Gonzales and Card leave the room without ever acknowledging Comey’s presence. “I was angry,” Comey will recall. “I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me.” (Eggen and Kane 5/16/2007; Eggen 6/7/2007) “That night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life, so it’s not something I forget,” Comey will testify. (PBS 5/16/2007) Goldsmith is also in the room; like Comey, Goldsmith receives a phone call alerting him to Gonzales’s and Card’s visit, and like Comey, Goldsmith races through the Washington streets to arrive at Ashcroft’s room minutes before Gonzales and Card arrive. He, too, is astonished at the brazen, callous approach taken by the two White House officials against Ashcroft, who he describes as laying in his darkened hospital room, with a bright light shining on him and tubes and wires protruding from his body. “Ashcroft, who looked like he was near death, sort of puffed up his chest,” Goldsmith later recalls. “All of a sudden, energy and color came into his face, and he said that he didn’t appreciate them coming to visit him under those circumstances, that he had concerns about the matter they were asking about and that, in any event, he wasn’t the attorney general at the moment; Jim Comey was. He actually gave a two-minute speech, and I was sure at the end of it he was going to die. It was the most amazing scene I’ve ever witnessed.” As Gonzales and Card leave the room, Goldsmith will recall, “Mrs. Ashcroft, who obviously couldn’t believe what she saw happening to her sick husband, looked at Gonzales and Card as they walked out of the room and stuck her tongue out at them. She had no idea what we were discussing, but this sweet-looking woman sticking out her tongue was the ultimate expression of disapproval. It captured the feeling in the room perfectly.” (Rosen 9/9/2007) After Gonzales and Card leave the room, Comey asks Mueller to instruct the security detail not to let any more visitors into the room, except for family, without Mueller’s approval, apparently in order to keep Gonzales and Card from attempting to return. (US Department of Justice 8/14/2007)
Cheney or Bush Behind Visit? - The hospital visit is sparked by at least two events: a meeting of White House officials a day earlier, where Vice President Dick Cheney attempted to push reluctant Justice Department officials to approve the surveillance program (see March 9, 2004), and Comey’s own refusal to certify the legality of the surveillance, as noted above. (Eggen 6/7/2007) Some believe that the timing of the incident shows that Cheney is the one who ordered Gonzales and Card to go to Ashcroft’s hospital room; Comey personally informed Cheney of his decision not to give his approval to the program. Speculation about Cheney’s ordering of the visit cannot be confirmed, (Roh 7/7/2007; Roh 8/16/2007) though the New York Times states flatly in an op-ed that “Vice President Dick Cheney sent Mr. Gonzales and [Card] to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room to get him to approve the wiretapping.” (New York Times 7/29/2007) Three years later, Goldsmith will tell Congress that he believes Bush himself authorized the visit (see October 2, 2007).
Meeting in the White House - Minutes after the incident in Ashcroft’s hospital room, Card orders Comey to appear at a late-night meeting at the White House; Comey refuses to go alone, and pulls Solicitor General Theodore Olson from a dinner party to act as a witness to the meeting. “Mr. Card was very upset and demanded that I come to the White House immediately. After the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness present,” Comey will testify. “[Card] replied, ‘What conduct? We were just there to wish him well.’ And I said again, ‘After what I just witnessed, I will not meet with you without a witness. And I intend that witness to be the solicitor general of the United States.’” On March 11, after an al-Qaeda bombing in Madrid kills over 200 people (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004, Bush recertifies the program without the approval of the Justice Department. Comey responds by drafting a letter of resignation, effective March 12. “I couldn’t stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis,” he will testify. “I just simply couldn’t stay.” Comey is not the only one threatening to resign; he is joined by Ashcroft, Mueller, Ayres, Goldsmith, Justice Department official Patrick Philbin, and others, who all intend to resign en masse if Bush signs off on the surveillance program without Justice Department support. But Ayres persuades Comey to delay his resignation; in Comey’s words, Ayres “asked me something that meant a great deal to him, and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me.” Instead of resigning on March 12, Bush meets separately with Comey and Mueller, and promises to make changes in the program (see March 12-Mid-2004). Those changes have never been disclosed, though some changes are later found to be the creation of a secret review court to oversee the surveillance court, and the clarification of what exactly constitutes “probable cause” for surveillance. Comey will testify,…“Director Mueller came to me and said that, ‘The president told me that the Department of Justice should get this where it wants to be—to do what the department thinks is right.’ And I took that mandate and set about to do that, and I accomplished that.” (Thomas and Klaidman 1/9/2006; Shapiro 5/15/2007; Nizza 5/15/2007; Eggen and Kane 5/16/2007; PBS 5/16/2007; Kellman 6/7/2007) Goldsmith recalls his surprise when Congress later approves the program and brings it somewhat under the supervision of the FISA court. “I was sure the government was going to melt down,” Goldsmith says in 2007. “No one anticipated they were going to reverse themselves.” (Rosen 9/9/2007)
Did Gonzales Break the Law? - It is also possible that Gonzales and Card may have broken the law in discussing classified information in a public venue. “Executive branch rules require sensitive classified information to be discussed in specialized facilities that are designed to guard against the possibility that officials are being targeted for surveillance outside of the workplace,” says law professor Neal Katyal, a national security adviser under Bill Clinton. “The hospital room of a cabinet official is exactly the type of target ripe for surveillance by a foreign power. And the NSA program is particularly sensitive. One government official familiar with the program notes, “Since it’s that program, it may involve cryptographic information,” some of the most highly protected information in the intelligence community. The law governing disclosure of classified information is quite strict, and numerous government and military officials have been investigated for potential violations in the past. “It’s the one you worry about,” says the government official. Katyal says that if Gonzales did indeed break the law, the Justice Department cannot run any investigation into the matter: “The fact that you have a potential case against the Attorney General himself calls for the most scrupulous and independent of investigations.” Many others are dismayed and confused by the contradictions between the absolute secrecy surrounding the program, and Gonzales’s and Card’s willingness to openly discuss it in such an insecure location, and in front of witnesses not cleared to hear details about the program—including Ashcroft’s wife, who is present in the room while the officials seek her husband’s signature. Former NSA general counsel Elizabeth Parker says not enough is known about the meeting to be sure whether or not the law was broken. “Obviously things can be discussed in ways that don’t divulge highly classified information,” she says. “The real issue is what is it about this program that is so classified that can’t allow it to be discussed in a Congressional setting, even a closed Congressional hearing. In order to have confidence in what this program is all about, one needs to understand better what the approach is and how it affects the rights of American citizens.”
'Horrible' Judgment - John Martin, who oversaw Justice’s counterintelligence division for 26 years, calls Gonzales’s and Card’s attempt to override Comey’s authority as acting attorney general as more than just “bad judgment.” Martin calls their judgement “horrible…they both knew or should have known that the Attorney General while he was so incapacitated had delegated his power to his deputy Jim Comey. Comey’s actions were heroic under the circumstances.” (Calabresi 5/17/2007)
Snow Dismisses Concerns - In May 2007, after Comey’s testimony to the Senate hits the media, White House press secretary Tony Snow dismisses any concerns about the inappropriateness of Gonzales’s and Card’s pressuring of Ashcroft in his hospital room, and skips over the fact that Comey, not Ashcroft, had the final authority of the Attorney General at the time. “Because he had an appendectomy, his brain didn’t work?” Snow will say of Ashcroft. “Jim Comey can talk about whatever reservations he may have had. But the fact is that there were strong protections in there, this program has saved lives and it’s vital for national security and furthermore has been reformed in a bipartisan way.” Judiciary Committee member Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a different take on the incident: “What happened in that hospital room crystallized Mr. Gonzales’ view about the rule of law: that he holds it in minimum low regard.” (Kellman 6/7/2007) Senate Democrats are preparing to introduce a resolution of no-confidence against Gonzales. (Calabresi 5/17/2007)
The Supreme Court convenes to hear arguments in Vice President Cheney’s appeal of a judicial order to reveal information about his secret energy task force (see December 15, 2003). Justice Antonin Scalia has recently returned from a duck hunting trip with Cheney; though critics demand he recuse himself to avoid charges of conflict of interest, Scalia refuses. The plaintiffs, conservative watchdog organization Judicial Watch and progressive environmental group Sierra Club, are heavily represented in the courtroom, and friends and supporters jam the courthouse steps. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, arguing for the government, posits that the White House enjoys a “constitutional immunity” that protects the executive branch from all requests for information unless the president himself is under criminal investigation. If the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) forces the president to make public any advice he or other White House officials have received, or even to make that information available to a judge (see August 2, 2002), FACA itself is unconstitutional, Olsen argues. “This is a case about separation of powers,” he says. Neither Congress nor the judiciary can force the president or his officials to disclose information to a judge, not even on a very limited basis to determine whether a lawsuit can proceed—a process called discovery. “We are submitting that the discovery itself violates the Constitution,” Olson asserts. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is taken aback by the sweep of his claim, which, if accepted, would gut the ability of the courts to review any civil lawsuit involving the executive branch. “All discovery?” she asks. “Yes,” Olson replies. Throughout the questioning, most of the justices seem sympathetic to the administration’s general constitutional concerns, but uncomfortable with siding entirely with the White House’s sweeping claims of inherent legal immunity from scrutiny. (Savage 2007, pp. 166-167) The oral arguments will continue for weeks (see April 27, 2004).
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).
A Supreme Court Justice, during the oral arguments in the cases of Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, asks how the Court can be certain that government interrogators are not abusing detainees. Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement answers that the court will have to “trust the executive to make the kind of quintessential military judgments that are involved in things like that.” (First 6/2004 ) The government’s legal strategy is so inflexible in part because of Vice President Cheney, who through his lawyer David Addington refuses to allow the Justice Department to budge from its intransigent position. For months, Solicitor General Theodore Olson and his deputy, Clement, have pled for modest shifts in policy that would bolster their arguments in court. Hamdi has languished in a Navy brig for two and a half years without a hearing or a lawyer. British citizen Shafiq Rasul has been held under similar conditions at Guantanamo for even longer (see November 28, 2001 and January 11, 2002-April 30, 2002). Olson says that Cheney’s position—the president has unlimited authority to order the indefinite detention of anyone suspected of terrorist activity without benefit of counsel or any judiciary intervention—would be easier to argue in court if he could “show them that you at least have some system of due process in place” to ensure against wrongful detention, according to a senior Justice Department official familiar with the issue. But Addington wins the argument, overriding Olson and the Justice Department by his arguments that any such retreat would restrict the freedom of future presidents and open the door to further lawsuits. The Supreme Court will find against Cheney in both the Hamdi (see June 28, 2004) and Rasul (see June 28, 2004) cases. Olson will resign as solicitor general 11 days later. (Gellman and Becker 6/25/2007)
David Addington, the chief counsel for Vice President Dick Cheney, is named Cheney’s chief of staff to replace Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame Wilson case (see February 13, 2002). (Waas and Singer 10/30/2005; MSNBC 11/4/2005) Addington is described by one White House official as “the most powerful man you never heard of.” A former Justice Department official says of Addington, “He seems to have his hand in everything, and he has these incredible powers, energy, reserves in an obsessive, zealot’s kind of way.” He is, according to former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, Cheney’s “eyes, ears, and voice.” (Ravagan 5/21/2006) Addington is a neoconservative ideologue committed to dramatically expanding the power of the presidency, and a powerful advocate of the “unitary executive” theory of presidential power. He has been with Cheney for years, ever since Cheney chose him to serve as the Pentagon’s chief counsel while Cheney was Defense Secretary under Ronald Reagan. During that time, Addington was an integral part of Cheney’s battle to keep the Iran-Contra scandal from exploding (see 1984). (Milbank 10/11/2004; Waas and Singer 10/30/2005; MSNBC 11/4/2005; Ravagan 5/21/2006) According to Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, documentary evidence shows that Cheney’s office, and Addington in particular, were responsible for giving at least tacit approval for US soldiers to abuse and torture prisoners in Iraq (see January 9, 2002). In an administration devoted to secrecy, Addington stands out in his commitment to keeping information away from the public. (Milbank 10/11/2004) Though Addington claims to have a lifelong love affair with the Constitution, his interpretation of it is somewhat unusual. One senior Congressional staffer says, “The joke around here is that Addington looks at the Constitution and sees only Article II, the power of the presidency.” (Ravagan 5/21/2006) Addington’s influence in the White House is pervasive. He scrutinizes every page of the federal budget, hunting for riders that might restrict the power of the president. He worked closely with Gonzales to oppose attempts by Congress to pry information from the executive branch, and constantly battles the State Department, whose internationalist philosophy is at odds with his and Cheney’s own beliefs. (Milbank 10/11/2004) Former Reagan Justice Department official Bruce Fein calls Addington the “intellectual brainchild” of overreaching legal assertions that “have resulted in actually weakening the presidency because of intransigence.” According to Fein, Addington and Cheney are doing far more than reclaiming executive authority, they are seeking to push it farther than it has ever gone under US constitutional authority. They have already been successful in removing executive restraints formerly in place under the War Powers Act, anti-impoundment legislation, the legislative veto and the independent counsel statute. “They’re in a time warp,” Fein says. “If you look at the facts, presidential powers have never been higher.” (Milbank 10/11/2004) “He thinks he’s on the side of the angels,” says a former Justice Department official. “And that’s what makes it so scary.” (Ravagan 5/21/2006)
The Wall Street Journal prints an editorial by former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson lambasting the Plame Wilson identity leak investigation and the indictment of former White House aide Lewis Libby (see October 28, 2005), and criticizing the use of the Independent Counsel Law to investigate the Plame Wilson identity leak. The Journal does not inform its readers of Olson’s participation in using the Independent Counsel Law to bring articles of impeachment against former President Clinton. Olson calls the investigation a “spectacle,” questions special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s impartiality, and says the entire Plame Wilson-Libby investigation is another example of “special prosecutor syndrome,” a politically motivated investigation run amok. Olson writes that he does not believe Libby is guilty of perjury because “I know him to be an honest, conscientious man who has given a large part of his life to public service.” Any misstatements Libby may have made to investigators (see October 14, 2003, November 26, 2003, March 5, 2004, and March 24, 2004) must have been inadvertent failures of memory and not deliberate lies. Moreover, Olson asserts, Libby had nothing to do with exposing Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA official (see (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, 2:24 p.m. July 12, 2003, and Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003). (Olson 10/31/2005)
Slate editor John Dickerson, who played a small role in the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see February 7, 2006), writes about the recently launched Lewis Libby defense fund’s Web site created to help raise money for Libby’s defense (see After October 28, 2005 and February 21, 2006). Far from looking like the Web site of an indicted criminal, Dickerson writes, the site’s design makes it seem as if Libby is running for elected office. He is shown with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while “[o]ther snapshots portray him in soft focus and at oblique angles, the kinds of images candidates use to make themselves look more huggable. Fortunately, Libby’s Web designers didn’t stoop to showing him with dogs and children.”
The 'Soft Sell' - Dickerson says the site is attempting to portray Libby to the American people as a likeable, honest person whose years of public service have left him open to unfair and unwarranted criminal charges. The site claims that Libby has virtually no money with which to fight those charges, and is basically relying on the generosity of the public to help him fight the government. The site does not focus as strongly on the array of powerful Washington Republicans lined up to help Libby raise money, particularly the large number of star fundraisers who raised large amounts of money for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns. However, the site notes, the Libby defense fund will not publicly release the names of donors to the fund. The site does focus on what Dickerson calls “the soft Scooter sell.” It intends to “clean… up his image for the public, the press, and potential jurors. The Web site offers a page titled ‘What You Aren’t Hearing,’ with testimonials lined up like movie blurbs.”
Possible Defense Strategy - And, Dickerson writes, the site offers hints as to what Libby’s defense strategy might be.
If the site is accurate, the defense team intends to portray Libby as “a good guy” who, as former Republican congressman Vin Weber says in a testimonial, “is a tough, honorable, honest guy.” He has spent his adult life in “selfless,” and apparently almost penniless, service to his country, fighting for the American people and battling terrorism and other national security threats with every waking breath. He is a “perfectionist,” says former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
Libby just forgot about his knowledge of Plame Wilson’s CIA status, the site emphasizes, because he was too busy serving his country (see January 31, 2006). Former Bush Legislative Affairs Director Nick Calio is quoted as saying: “There are a lot of things that I don’t remember. I go through notes sometimes now and say I don’t even remember being in the meeting, let alone, you know, having said what I said.” Former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson adds, “From personal experience as a former public official who has been investigated by a special prosecutor, I know how easy it is not to be able to remember details of seemingly insignificant conversations.”
Dickerson notes that the two arguments are somewhat contradictory. He writes, “Libby’s site has a hard time, because it simultaneously is trying to argue that a) he was likely to forget the Plame episodes and b) he was hypercompetent.”
The site also spends a large amount of time and bandwidth attacking special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Seven of the 19 perspectives on Libby are criticisms of Fitzgerald, such as a statement by former Deputy Attorney General Victoria Toensing (see November 3, 2005) that the special counsel “has been investigating a very simple factual scenario and he’s missed this crucial fact.” (Dickerson 2/27/2006) Toensing will engage in further criticism of Fitzgerald and the criminal case against Libby in op-eds (see February 18, 2007, February 18, 2007, and March 16, 2007).
After an investigation into whether an Israeli lobbying organization improperly tried to influence House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) into naming Jane Harman (D-CA) as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (see Summer 2005 and October 2005) becomes public knowledge, Harman calls the allegations “irresponsible, laughable, and scurrilous.” Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, a Republican just hired by Harman to represent her in the matter, tells Time reporter Timothy Burger: “Congresswoman Harman has asked me to follow up on calls you’ve had. She is not aware of any such investigation, does not believe that it is occurring, and wanted to make sure that you and your editors knew that as far as she knows, that’s not true.… No one from the Justice Department has contacted her.” Burger notes that “[i]t is not, however, a given that Harman would know that she is under investigation.” Olson confirms that Harman hired him because even though she doesn’t believe the media reports of the investigation, she takes the possibility seriously. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), allegedly Harman’s partner in the scheme, also denies any wrongdoing, and says it takes no position on the question of who wins the committee assignment, which was perceived to be a contest between Harman and fellow committee member Alcee Hastings (D-FL). AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton says: “Both Congressman Hastings and Congresswoman Harman are strong leaders on issues of importance to the pro-Israel community and would be exemplary Democratic leaders for the House intelligence committee. AIPAC would never engage in a quid pro quo in relation to a federal investigation or any federal matter and the notion that it would do so is preposterous. AIPAC is not aware that the Justice Department is looking into issues involving the intelligence committee, and has not been asked any questions or contacted by the government on this matter, but certainly would cooperate with any inquiry.” Dorton adds that AIPAC has previously been assured that the organization and its current employees are not being investigated. (Burger 10/20/2006)
The conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU—see May 1998 and (May 11, 2004)) releases a film entitled Hillary: The Movie. The film is a lengthy diatribe attacking the character and career of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Large portions of the film are comprised of conservative critics launching attacks against the personalities and character of Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) says he based his film on a documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, released in 2004 by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore (see August 6, 2004), and calls it “a rigorously researched critical biography” comparable to the material presented on political talk shows such as Meet the Press. (Barnes 3/15/2009; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Bossie intended for the film to be released in late 2007 and impact the 2008 race in the same way that he believes Fahrenheit 9/11 impacted the 2004 race. A cable company made the film, at a cost of $1.2 million, available for free to viewers on “video on demand.” Bossie also scheduled a small theater run for the film, but his primary focus was always cable television and the accompanying television advertisements. Knowing the film will probably run afoul of campaign law, he hired lawyers, first James Bopp Jr. (a former member of the far-right Young Americans for Freedom—YAF—and the former general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee—see November 1980 and After) (Toobin 5/21/2012) and later Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general under the Bush administration. Olson will later say the film is “a critical biographical assessment” that provides “historical information about the candidate and, perhaps, some measure of entertainment as well.” The New York Times calls it “a scathingly hostile look at Mrs. Clinton” replete with “ripe voice-overs, shadowy re-enactments, and spooky mood music.” The film also contains interviews and material from mainstream media reporters, and interviews with figures such as former CIA agent Gary Aldrich, who wrote a “tell-all” book about the Clinton administration, and with Kathleen Willey, who has claimed that Bill Clinton once made an unwelcome sexual advance towards her. Reviewer Megan Carpentier of Radar Online will trounce the movie, saying that it “scrolls through more than a decade of press clippings and a treasure trove of unflattering pictures in its one-sided romp” and will advise potential viewers to watch it “while inebriated in the manner of your choosing, and only if you don’t pay $10 for the privilege.” (Liptak 3/5/2009) Bossie claims the movie has nothing to do with the impending primary elections. CU intends to show the movie in a small number of theaters but primarily on “video on demand” cable broadcasts, with accompanying television advertisements. In return for a $1.2 million fee, a cable television consortium has agreed to make the movie freely available to its customers as part of what CU calls its “Election ‘08” series. (CU has another negative documentary on Clinton’s Democratic challenger Barack Obama in the works—see October 28-30, 2008—but apparently has no plans to air any documentaries on Republican candidate John McCain or any other Republican presidential candidates.) However, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refuses to allow the film to be aired on cable channels, or advertised for theater release, because the FEC considers the film “electioneering” and thus subject to campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002) restrictions. Moreover, the film and its planned distribution are funded by corporate donations. (United States District Court for the District Of Columbia 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen 1/15/2008; Toobin 5/21/2012) Bossie claims the film takes no position on Clinton’s candidacy, and says that if he had to vote between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he would vote for Clinton. (Liptak 3/5/2009)
Court Fight - Bopp, CU’s original lawyer, decides to pursue the same general aggressive course that he took in a recent successful Supreme Court campaign finance case, the Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) decision (see Mid-2004 and After). The Hillary film was envisioned from the outset to serve multiple purposes: to advance conservative ideology, damage Clinton’s presidential chances (despite Bossie’s claims), and generate profits. Bopp knows that the FEC would likely classify the film as a political advertisement and not a work of journalism or entertainment (see August 6, 2004), and therefore would fall under campaign law restrictions. Before the film is officially released, Bopp takes the film to the FEC for a ruling, and when the FEC, as expected, rules the film to be “electioneering communication” that comes under campaign law restrictions, Bopp files a lawsuit with the Washington, DC, federal district court. The court rules in favor of the FEC judgment, denying CU its request for a preliminary injunction against the FEC’s ruling. The court specifically finds that the WRTL decision does not apply in this case. “[I]f the speech cannot be interpreted as anything other than an appeal to vote for or against a candidate, it will not be considered genuine issue speech even if it does not expressly advocate the candidate’s election or defeat,” the court states. The court also questions CU’s statement that the film “does not focus on legislative issues.… The movie references the election and Senator Clinton’s candidacy, and it takes a position on her character, qualifications, and fitness for office.” Film commentator Dick Morris has said of the film that it will “give people the flavor and an understanding of why she should not be president.” The court rules, “The movie is 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.” (During arguments, Bopp says that the film is much like what a viewer would see on CBS’s evening news show 60 Minutes, and Judge Royce Lamberth laughs aloud, saying: “You can’t compare this to 60 Minutes. Did you read this transcript?” Other judges find it problematic that one of the film’s central “issues” is its assertion that Clinton is, in Bopp’s words, “a European socialist,” but still claims not to be overtly partisan.) (Mencimer 1/13/2008; United States District Court for the District Of Columbia 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen 1/15/2008; Toobin 5/21/2012)
Supreme Court Appeal - CU appeals the court’s decision directly to the Supreme Court. Bossie soon decides to replace Bopp with Olson, a far more prominent figure in conservative legal circles. Toobin will write: “Ted Olson had argued and won Bush v. Gore (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000), and was rewarded by President Bush with an appointment as solicitor general. Olson had argued before the Supreme Court dozens of times, and he had a great deal of credibility with the justices. He knew how to win.” (Richard Hasen 1/15/2008; Toobin 5/21/2012)
Previous Attempt - In September 2004, Bossie and CU attempted, without success, to release a similar “documentary” supporting President Bush and attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) on television, just weeks before the presidential election. The FEC turned down the group’s request. The FEC did allow the film to be shown in theaters (see September 8, 2004 and September 27-30, 2004).
'Ten-Year Plan' - Bopp will later reveal that the lawsuit is part of what he will call a “10-year plan” to push the boundaries of campaign finance law, and that he urged Bossie and other CU officials to use the documentary as a “test case” for overturning the body of law (see January 25, 2010).
Fred Hollander, a New Hampshire resident, files a lawsuit challenging presidential contender John McCain (R-AZ)‘s ability to serve as president. Hollander names the Republican National Committee (RNC) as a co-defendant. (Hollander v. McCain et al 3/14/2008) Hollander’s challenge hinges on a February 2008 report from conservative news blog News Busters that said since McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 (his parents, both US citizens were stationed on a Navy base in Panama at the time), he may not be eligible under Article II of the Constitution to be president. News Busters went on to report that McCain’s claim to have been born in the Coco Solo Naval Hospital in the Canal Zone was false, since that hospital was not built until 1941, and the nearest hospital at the time of his birth was not on a US military base, but in the Panamanian city of Colon. Therefore, the report concluded, “we were lied to” about McCain’s birthplace, and News Busters speculated that McCain’s citizenship was in question. However, News Busters was in error. According to subsequent investigations by the press, the Panama Canal Zone did contain a small hospital at the Coco Solo submarine base in 1936, and McCain was born in that hospital. Archival records also show the name of the Naval doctor who signed McCain’s birth certificate, Captain W. L. Irvine, the director of the facility at the time. News Busters, and Hollander, are in error in their reading of the law. Both of McCain’s parents were US citizens, and McCain was born on a US military base, which qualifies under the Constitution as “US soil.” The McCain presidential campaign has refused to release a copy of McCain’s birth certificate, but a senior campaign official shows Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs a copy of the McCain birth certificate issued by the Coco Solo Naval hospital. (News Busters (.org) 2/21/2008; Dobbs 5/20/2008) Additionally, the Panama American newspaper for August 31, 1936 carried an announcement of McCain’s birth. (Washington Post 4/17/2008 ) Two lawyers interviewed by CBS News concur that under the law, McCain is a “natural born citizen” and eligible to serve as president. Theodore Olson, the solicitor general for the Bush administration, and Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor generally considered to be a liberal, agree that challenges to McCain’s citizenship are specious. (CBS News 3/28/2008) Hollander files what is later determined to be a fake birth certificate with the court that purports to prove McCain has Panamanian citizenship. The court throws Hollander’s lawsuit out on the grounds that Hollander has no standing to challenge McCain’s citizenship. (US District Court, District of New Hampshire 7/24/2008 ; Obama Conspiracy (.org) 2/27/2009; Obama Conspiracy (.org) 4/24/2010) The lawsuit is similar in nature to numerous court challenges to McCain’s Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama (see August 21-24, 2008, October 9-28, 2008, October 17-22, 2008, October 21, 2008, October 31 - November 3, 2008, October 24, 2008, October 31, 2008 and After, November 12, 2008 and After, November 13, 2008, and Around November 26, 2008).
The US Supreme Court hears the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refused to let the conservative lobbying organization Citizens United (CU) air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 presidential primary season (see January 10-16, 2008). The FEC ruled that H:TM, as some have shortened the name, was not a film, but a 90-minute campaign ad with no other purpose than to smear and attack Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as being unfit to hold office. A panel of appeals judges agreed with the FEC’s ruling, which found the film was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” As a campaign ad, the film’s airing on national network television came under campaign finance laws, particularly since the film was financed by corporate political donations. CU was allowed to air the film in theaters and sell it in DVD and other formats, but CU wanted to pay $1.2 million to have the movie aired on broadcast cable channels and video-on-demand (pay per view) services, and to advertise its broadcast. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) hired former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Bossie denies that he chose Olson because of their shared loathing of the Clintons—they worked together to foment the “Arkansas Project,” a Clinton smear effort that resulted in Congress unsuccessfully impeaching President Clinton—but because Olson gave “us the best chance to win.” Bossie dedicated the Clinton film to Barbara Olson, Olson’s late wife, who died in the 9/11 attacks (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) “I just don’t see how the Federal Election Commission has the authority to use campaign-finance rules to regulate advertising that is not related to campaigns,” Bossie told reporters last year. (Richey 2/1/2008)
Uphold or Cut Back McCain-Feingold? - Observers, unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, believe the case gives the Court the opportunity to either uphold or cut back the body of law stemming from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or McCain-Feingold) campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002), which limits the ability of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising before elections. CU is arguing that the BCRA is unconstitutional, having argued before a previous court that the the BCRA law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film. In its brief to the Court, CU denies the film is any sort of “electioneering,” claiming: “Citizens United’s documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect… The government’s position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions—or articulate facts—pertinent to a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.” The Justice Department, siding with the FEC, calls the film an “unmistakable” political appeal, stating, “Every element of the film, including the narration, the visual images and audio track, and the selection of clips, advances the clear message that Senator Clinton lacked both the integrity and the qualifications to be president of the United States.” The film is closer to a political “infomercial” than a legitimate documentary, the Justice Department argues. The film’s “unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton’s character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States,” according to a Justice Department lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, who filed a brief on behalf of the FEC. The Justice Department wants the Court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads, while Olson and CU want the Court to strike down the requirements. Olson says financial backers of films such as H:TM may be reluctant to back a film if their support becomes publicly known. Kneedler, however, writes that such disclosure is in the public interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is joining CU in its court fight, stating in a brief, “By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies.” Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which supports the BCRA, disagrees with RCFP’s stance, saying, “The idea that [the law] threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch.” (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) The RCFP has said that the movie “does not differ, in any relevant respect, from the critiques of presidential candidates produced throughout the entirety of American history.” And a lawyer with the RCFP, Gregg P. Leslie, asked, “Who is the FEC to decide what is news and what kind of format news is properly presented in?” (Liptak 3/5/2009)
Filled with False Information - The movie was relentlessly panned by critics, who found much of its “information” either misrepresentative of Clinton or outright false. CU made several other films along with the Clinton documentary, which included attacks on filmmaker Michael Moore, the American Civil Liberties Union, illegal immigrants, and Clinton’s fellow presidential contender Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009)
Arguments Presented - Olson and his opponent, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, present arguments in the case to the assembled Court. Traditionally, lawyers with the Solicitor General (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin later writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and is a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative justice with a penchant for asking tough questions that often hide their true intentions behind carefully neutral wording, is interested in seeing how far he can push Stewart’s argument. Does the BCRA apply only to television commercials, he asks, or might it regulate other means of communication during a federal campaign? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?” Stewart says that the BCRA indeed imposes such restrictions, stating, “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.” Could the government regulate the content of a book? Alito asks. “That’s pretty incredible. You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?” Stewart, who tardily realizes where Alito was going, attempts to recover. “I’m not saying it could be banned,” he responds. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a “swing” justice in some areas but a reliable conservative vote in campaign-spending cases, interrupts Stewart. “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book,” Kennedy says. “Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the 60- and 30-day periods?” Stewart gives what Toobin later calls “a reluctant, qualified yes.” At this point, Roberts speaks up. According to Toobin, Roberts intends to paint Stewart into something of a corner. “If it has one name, one use of the candidate’s name, it would be covered, correct?” Roberts asks. Stewart responds, “That’s correct.” Roberts then asks, “If it’s a 500-page book, and at the end it says, ‘And so vote for X,’ the government could ban that?” Stewart responds, “Well, if it says ‘vote for X,’ it would be express advocacy and it would be covered by the preexisting Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980) provisions.” Toobin later writes that with their “artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts ha[ve] turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship.” Unwittingly, Stewart has argued that the government has the right to censor books because of a single line. Toobin later writes that Stewart is incorrect, that the government could not ban or censor books because of McCain-Feingold. The law applies to television advertisements, and stems from, as Toobin will write, “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Legal scholars and pundits will later argue about Stewart’s answers to the three justices’ questions, but, as Toobin will later write, “the damage to the government’s case had been profound.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Behind the Scenes - Unbeknownst to the lawyers and the media, the Court initially renders a 5-4 verdict in favor of CU, and strikes down decades of campaign finance law, before withdrawing its verdict and agreeing to hear rearguments in the fall (see June 29, 2009). Toobin will write that the entire case is orchestrated behind the scenes, by Roberts and his fellow majority conservatives. Toobin will write of “a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case” that “reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court.” Toobin will write that although the five conservatives are involved in broadening the scope of the case, and Kennedy actually writes the majority decision, “the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.” The initial vote on the case is 5-4, with the five conservative justices—Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—taking the majority.
Expansive Concurrence Becomes the Majority Opinion - At the outset, the case is decided on the basis of Olson’s narrow arguments, regarding the issue of a documentary being made available on demand by a nonprofit organization (CU). Roberts takes the majority opinion onto himself. The four liberals in the minority are confident Roberts’s opinion would be as narrow as Olson’s arguments. Roberts’s draft opinion is indeed that narrow. Kennedy writes a concurrence opining that the Court should go further and overturn McCain-Feingold, the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), and end the ban on corporate donations to campaigns (see 1907). When the draft opinions circulates, the other three conservatives begin rallying towards Kennedy’s more expansive concurrence. Roberts then withdraws his draft and lets Kennedy write the majority opinion in line with his concurrence. Toobin later writes: “The new majority opinion transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law in a case where the lawyer had not even raised those issues. Roberts’s approach to Citizens United conflicted with the position he had taken earlier in the term.” During arguments in a different case, Roberts had “berated at length” a lawyer “for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the petition. Now Roberts was doing nearly the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.”
Dissent - The senior Justice in the minority, John Paul Stevens, initially assigns the main dissent to Justice David Souter. Souter, who is in the process of retiring from the Court, writes a stinging dissent that documents some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the case, including an accusation that Roberts violated the Court’s procedures to get the outcome he wanted. Toobin will call Souter’s planned dissent “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court” that Roberts feels “could damage the Court’s credibility.” Roberts offers a compromise: Souter will withdraw his dissent if the Court schedules a reargument of the case in the fall of 2009 (see June 29, 2009). The second argument would feature different “Questions Presented,” and the stakes of the case would be far clearer. The four minority justices find themselves in something of a conundrum. They feel that to offer the Kennedy opinion as it stands would be to “sandbag” them and the entire case, while a reargument would at least present the issues that the opinion was written to reflect. And there is already a 5-4 majority in favor of Kennedy’s expansive opinion. The liberals, with little hope of actually winning the case, agree to the reargument. The June 29, 2009 announcement will inform the parties that the Court is considering overturning two key decisions regarding campaign finance restrictions, including a decision rendered by the Roberts court (see March 27, 1990 and December 10, 2003) and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Court observers will understand that the Court is not in the habit of publicly asking whether a previous Court decision should be overruled unless a majority is already prepared to do just that. Toobin will call Roberts and his four colleagues “impatient” to make the decision, in part because an early decision would allow the ruling to impact the 2010 midterm elections. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Created to Give Courts Shot at McCain-Feingold - Critics, as yet unaware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, will later say that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign will say: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” Bossie himself will later confirm that contention, saying: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” (Rucker 1/22/2010) CU’s original lawyer on the case, James Bopp, will later verify that the case was brought specifically to give the Court a chance to cut back or overturn campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010). The Court will indeed overturn McCain-Feingold in the CU decision (see January 21, 2010).
The second round of arguments in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, and June 29, 2009) is heard by the US Supreme Court. The first round of arguments, which unexpectedly focused on an unplanned examination of government censorship, ended in a 5-4 split, with the majority of conservative justices readying a decision to essentially gut the entire body of federal campaign finance law in the name of the First Amendment (see March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), but an angry dissent by Justice David Souter that accused Chief Justice John Roberts of failing to follow the procedures of the Court in rendering the opinion prompted Roberts to temporarily withdraw the opinion and offer a rare second argument (see May 14, 2012). Newly appointed Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues her first case before the Court. Citizens United, the plaintiff, is represented by former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, a veteran of Court arguments, quickly discerns from the new round of “Questions Presented” that the Court is prepared to not only find in the plaintiff’s favor, but to use the case to render a broad verdict against campaign finance law as a whole. Olson argues cautiously, not wanting to extend the case farther than the Court may desire. The four minority liberal justices, knowing the case is lost, try their best in their questioning to raise awareness in the public once news reports of the arguments are made public. One of those justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, asks: “Mr. Olson, are you taking the position that there is no difference” between the First Amendment rights of a corporation and those of an individual? “A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights. So is there any distinction that Congress could draw between corporations and natural human beings for purposes of campaign finance?” Olson replies, “What the Court has said in the First Amendment context… over and over again is that corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment” (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). Ginsburg follows up by asking, “Would that include today’s mega-corporations, where many of the investors may be foreign individuals or entities?” Olson replies, “The Court in the past has made no distinction based upon the nature of the entity that might own a share of a corporation.” Kagan then takes her turn, and begins: “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, I have three very quick points to make about the government position. The first is that this issue has a long history. For over a hundred years, Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections, and this Court has never questioned that judgment.” She begins to make her second point before Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the conservative majority, interrupts her. In 2012, author and reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write that Kagan almost certainly knows hers is a legal “suicide mission,” and can only hope that her arguments may sway the Court to narrow its decision and leave some of the existing body of campaign finance law intact. She tells Roberts later in the questioning period, “Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses, if it has to lose, the answer is yes.” Justice John Paul Stevens, the most senior of the liberal minority, attempts to assist Kagan in making her argument, suggesting that the Court should content itself with a narrow ruling, perhaps creating an exception in the McCain-Feingold law (see March 27, 2002) for the plaintiff’s documentary (see January 10-16, 2008) or for “ads that are financed exclusively by individuals even though they are sponsored by a corporation.” Kagan agrees with Stevens’s proposal. Stevens then says: “Nobody has explained why that wouldn’t be a proper solution, not nearly as drastic. Why is that not the wisest narrow solution of the problem before us?” Kagan, with help from Ginsburg, undoes some of the damage done by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart during the first argument, where he inadvertently gave the conservative justices the “censorship” argument by which they could justify a broader verdict. Ginsburg asks: “May I ask you one question that was highlighted in the prior argument, and that was if Congress could say no TV and radio ads, could it also say no newspaper ads, no campaign biographies? Last time, the answer was yes, Congress could, but it didn’t. Is that still the government’s answer?” Kagan replies: “The government’s answer has changed, Justice Ginsburg. We took the Court’s own reaction to some of those other hypotheticals very seriously. We went back, we considered the matter carefully.” Unlike Stewart, Kagan specifically says that the government cannot ban books. But the censorship argument remains. After the arguments, the justices render the same verdict: a 5-4 split favoring Citizens United. Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas vote in the majority, while Ginsburg, Stevens, and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor vote in the minority. The second round of questioning, with its much broader scope, gives Roberts and his conservative colleagues the justification they need to render a broad verdict that would gut existing campaign finance law (see January 21, 2010). (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010) In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” (Savage 1/21/2010; OMB Watch 1/27/2010; Richey and Feldmann 2/2/2010; National Public Radio 2012)
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010)
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. (Legal Information Institute 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION 1/21/2010 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010; Sherman 1/21/2010; Richey and Feldmann 2/2/2010)
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” (Rucker 1/22/2010)
Author and political pundit, Jeffrey Toobin, publishes an in-depth article for the New Yorker showing that Chief Justice John Roberts engineered the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010), moving it from a case that could well have been considered and decided on a relatively narrow basis to a sweeping decision that reformed the nation’s campaign finance structure. Toobin writes that the underlying issue was quite narrow: the conservative advocacy organization Citizens United (CU) wanted to run a documentary attacking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) on “video on demand” cable broadcast (see January 10-16, 2008). Under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation (see March 27, 2002 and December 10, 2003), the Federal Election Commission (FEC) disallowed the broadcast because it would come 30 days or less before primary elections. CU challenged the decision in court (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). (Toobin 5/21/2012) Toobin’s article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Oath: The Obama White House vs. The Supreme Court. It is dated May 21, but appears on the New Yorker’s Web site on May 14. (Tom Goldstein 5/14/2012)
Oral Arguments - During the initial arguments (see March 15, 2009), attorney Theodore Olson, the former solicitor general for the Bush administration, argued a narrow case: that McCain-Feingold’s prohibitions only applied to television commercials, not to full-length documentary films. Olson argued, “This sort of communication was not something that Congress intended to prohibit.” Toobin writes: “Olson’s argument indicated that there was no need for the Court to declare any part of the law unconstitutional, or even to address the First Amendment implications of the case. Olson simply sought a judgment that McCain-Feingold did not apply to documentaries shown through video on demand.… If the justices had resolved the case as Olson had suggested, today Citizens United might well be forgotten—a narrow ruling on a remote aspect of campaign-finance law.” However, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most vocal opponents of campaign finance restrictions on the Court (see September 26, 1986, December 15, 1986, March 27, 1990, June 26, 1996, June 16, 2003, December 10, 2003, and June 25, 2007), seemed disappointed in the limited nature of Olson’s argument, Toobin writes. The oral arguments expand the case far beyond Olson’s initial position. Olson’s initial intention was to narrow the case so that the Court would not have to expand its scope to find in favor of CU.
Change of Scope - Ironically, the government’s lead lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, may well have changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation. Traditionally, lawyers with the solicitor general (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. Toobin writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who had clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. But, Toobin writes, Stewart fell into a trap, prompted by Justice Samuel Alito’s pointed questioning about the government’s ability to ban or censor printed materials—i.e. books—under McCain-Feingold—and follow-up questions by Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, that led him to claim incorrectly that the government could indeed censor books under the law. Stewart’s incorrect assertion gave Roberts and his colleagues the chance to overturn McCain-Feingold on the grounds of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Second Arguments - The second arguments were held on September 9, 2009 (see September 9, 2009). The concept of “money equals speech” goes back at least as far as the 1976 Buckley decision (see January 30, 1976), and the five conservative justices were poised to stretch that definition much farther than has previously been done.
Majority Opinion - Toobin writes that Roberts’s decision was then to decide “how much he wanted to help the Republican Party. Roberts’s choice was: a lot.” Roberts assigned the opinion to Kennedy, the “swing” justice who had already written an expansive opinion gutting almost a century’s worth of campaign finance legislation. Kennedy tends to “swing wildly in one direction or another,” Toobin writes, “an extremist—of varied enthusiasms.” In the area of campaign finance, he has consistently “swung” to the conservative side of the argument. He is, Toobin writes, “extremely receptive to arguments that the government had unduly restricted freedom of speech—especially in the area of campaign finance.” Moreover, Kennedy enjoys writing controversial and “high-profile” opinions. Toobin says that Roberts’s choice of Kennedy to write the opinion was clever: Roberts came onto the Court promising to conduct himself with judicial modesty and a respect for precedent. Kennedy, with his draft opinion at the ready, was a better choice to write an opinion that lacked either modesty or a respect for Court precedence. Roberts, Toobin writes, “obtained a far-reaching result without leaving his own fingerprints.” Kennedy, in an often-eloquent opinion that did not deal with the gritty reality of the Citizens United case, stated that any restraint of money in a campaign risked infringing on free speech. “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.… By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker’s voice. The government may not by these means deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration. The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.” Kennedy also reaffirmed the Court’s perception that corporations deserve the same First Amendment protections enjoyed by individuals. Kennedy’s opinion found, in Toobin’s words, that “[t]he Constitution required that all corporations, for-profit and nonprofit alike, be allowed to spend as much as they wanted, anytime they wanted, in support of the candidates of their choosing.” One of the only provisions remaining in McCain-Feingold after Kennedy’s opinion was the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates.
Fiery Dissent from 'Liberal' Stevens - Toobin reminds readers that the elder statesman of the “liberal” wing of the Court at the time, John Paul Stevens, is a “moderate Midwestern Republican,” one of the last of a “vanishing political tradition.” Though Stevens’s views have migrated left on some issues, such as the death penalty, Toobin writes that the perception of Stevens as a Court liberal is mostly because of the Court’s steady progression to the right. Toobin writes that the 90-year-old Stevens has grown dispirited in recent years, as the conservative wing of the Court, led by Scalia, Alito, and Roberts with Clarence Thomas and often Kennedy in tow, overturned one Court precedent after another. “The course of Citizens United represented everything that offended Stevens most about the Roberts Court,” Toobin writes. Much of Stevens’s objections to the Roberts Court are rooted in procedure; he is deeply troubled by the Citizens United case being transformed by Roberts and his conservative colleagues from a narrowly focused case about a single McCain-Feingold provision to what Toobin calls “an assault on a century of federal laws and precedents. To Stevens, it was the purest kind of judicial activism.” Stevens wrote in his angry dissent, “Five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” A simple change in the McCain-Feingold law to disallow its application to full-length documentaries the CU case was sparked by, or even to nonprofit organizations such as CU, would have been appropriate, Stevens wrote. He penned a 90-page dissent, the longest of his career, blasting almost every aspect of Kennedy’s decision, starting with Kennedy’s ignoring of precedent and continuing with a refutation of Kennedy’s perception of the Constitutional definitions of “censorship” and “free speech.” Stevens was angered by Kennedy’s equivocation of corporations with people. “The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare,” he wrote. “Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.” Congress has drawn significant distinctions between corporations and people for over a century, he wrote: “at the federal level, the express distinction between corporate and individual political spending on elections stretches back to 1907, when Congress passed the Tillman Act” (see 1907). He even challenged Kennedy’s stated fear that the government might persecute individuals’ speech based on “the speaker’s identity,” sarcastically noting that Kennedy’s opinion “would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ [a famed Japanese propagandist] during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.” According to Toobin, Stevens’s law clerks disliked the dated reference, but Stevens, a Navy veteran, insisted on keeping it. Toobin writes that “Stevens’s conclusion was despairing.” Stevens concluded: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.… It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Toobin notes that as “impressive” as Stevens’s dissent may have been, it was Kennedy’s opinion that “was reshaping American politics.”
Reaction - In his State of the Union address six days after the verdict, President Obama referenced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concerns about foreign influence in American politics by saying, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections” (see January 27-29, 2010). Democrats cheered as Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.” Alito’s mouthing of the words “not true” stirred some controversy; Toobin notes that Alito was technically correct, as “Kennedy’s opinion expressly reserved the question of whether the ruling applied to foreign corporations.” However, Toobin notes, “as Olson had argued before the justices, the logic of the Court’s prior decisions suggested that foreign corporations had equal rights to spend in American elections.” With the Citizens United decision and a March 2010 decision that allowed for the formation of “super PACs” (see March 26, 2010), the way was clear for what Toobin calls “presidential campaigns in 2012 that were essentially underwritten by single individuals.” He notes the billionaires that almost single-handedly supported Republican presidential candidates (see February 21, 2012, February 16-17, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 26, 2012, and April 22, 2012), and the efforts of organizations like Crossroads GPS that have to date raised tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates (see May 2, 2012). Toobin believes that the Court will continue to deregulate campaign finance, noting the 2011 decision that invalidated Arizona’s system of public financing that state enacted after a series of campaign finance scandals (see June 27, 2011). He concludes, “The Roberts Court, it appears, will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom to raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Criticisms of the Article - Toobin’s article will engender significant criticism, from nuanced questioning of particular elements of Toobin’s story (see May 14, 2012) to accusations of outright “fictionalizing” (see May 17, 2012) and “libelous” claims (see May 15-17, 2012).
Columnist Adam White, writing for the conservative Weekly Standard, lambasts a recent article by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin about the internal decision-making process behind the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010 and May 14, 2012). Most publications describe the decision as allowing corporations and labor unions to spend money freely in campaigns, but White defines it differently, calling it an affirmation of “a corporation’s First Amendment right to spend money on independent speech on political issues, even when that speech criticizes candidates for office” (see January 21, 2010, January 22, 2010, and February 2, 2010). Law professors Tom Goldstein and Jonathan Adler have found some “spin” in Toobin’s account of events (see May 14, 2012), and law professor Richard Hasen has asked that a draft dissent highly critical of the decision and its methodology be made public to shed light on Toobin’s narrative (see May 14-16, 2012). However, White goes significantly further than any of the professors in tarring Toobin’s article, and in some instances Toobin himself. White writes flatly that everyone outside of “Toobin’s base,” presumably meaning liberals who comprise “Chief Justice [John] Roberts’s critics,” is “skeptical” of the article, and cites Goldstein and National Review columnist Ed Whelan (see May 15-17, 2012) as examples of those presumed skeptics who have “poured cold water” on the story. According to White, Toobin “front-load[ed] his story with easily disprovable mischaracterizations of the case” that [e]ven a cursory review of the case’s briefs, and contemporary news coverage, disproves Toobin’s thesis” of Roberts using a narrowly drawn case to revamp and invalidate most of US campaign finance law. White writes that Toobin’s characterization of the narrow focus of the case is wrong: “The First Amendment stakes were well known, and much discussed, in the run-up to oral argument.” He cites the New York Times editorial published at the time of the first arguments, in March 2009 (see March 23, 2009), warning that if the Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, “it would create an enormous loophole in the law and allow corporate money to flood into partisan politics in ways it has not in many decades. It also would seriously erode the disclosure rules for campaign contributions.” He also notes that respected court reporter Lyle Denniston warned before the oral arguments that the Citizens United case threatened to deliver “a sweeping rejection of Congressional authority to regulate campaign spending by corporations.” Toobin himself made some of the same arguments on CNN the day of the arguments, White notes. He calls Toobin’s version of events in the article a “clumsy fictionalization of the case” designed to vilify Roberts. He also questions Toobin’s characterization of the first arguments from Citizens United (CU) lawyer Theodore Olson, going considerably further than either Goldstein or Adler in accusing Toobin of fundamentally misrepresenting Olson’s original, narrowly focused case. According to White, Olson’s opening argument claimed that the restriction being challenged by CU was “unconstitutional as applied to the distribution of Citizens United’s documentary film through video on demand… [it] plainly exceeds Congress’s sharply limited authority to abridge the freedom of speech.” White claims that Olson cited First Amendment grounds in a portion of the arguments not reported by Toobin, and quotes from Olson’s argument; that quote describes Olson’s citation of the 2007 case Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL—see Mid-2004 and After and June 25, 2007), which indeed used First Amendment grounds for its successful positioning, and quotes Olson as saying the WRTL decision “errs on the side of permitting the speech, not prohibiting the speech.” White accuses Toobin of deliberately misrepresenting Olson’s argument to “advanc[e] his own anti-Roberts narrative.” White is unable to check the accuracy of Toobin’s behind-the-scenes narrative, as Toobin’s sources are not revealed in the article, but White is “skeptical,” writing, “Given Toobin’s inability of accurately handling straightforward, easily confirmable facts, why should anyone take at face value Toobin’s description of the justices’ private discussions, and their draft opinions—especially when Toobin only describes, never quotes, those deliberations or draft opinions?” Like Adler, Toobin questions the ethics of the person or persons at the Court who “leaked” the story to Toobin. (White 5/17/2012)