In a barely coherent editorial this morning, The New York Times continues its decades-long crusade against free speech – except its own, of course – with yet another blast at the Supreme Court over its campaign finance decision last January in the Citizens United case. And again, the Times misstates the decision: it did not overturn “a century of precedent.” Perhaps its editorialists can be forgiven for that, even after nearly a year to get it right: after all, the president himself continues to misstate the decision, and that’s good enough for them.
Entitled “Our Constitutional Court,” the editorial’s main point seems to be that the Court is “redefining itself as a constitutional court.” That’s a curious charge. Many countries have “constitutional courts” that give, among other things, advisory opinions about the constitutionality of pending legislation. Our courts, by contrast, decide only “cases or controversies” that are ripe for decision, based on facts that bring the controversy into fairly sharp relief; but they’re still often “constitutional” decisions. The charge here, apparently, is that the Court acted where it needn’t have or, perhaps, had no authority to act. Yet the facts belie that.
Citizens United is a complex decision, but the facts giving rise to it are fairly simple. It arose over the question whether Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, could advertise a film critical of Hillary Clinton in broadcast ads during the 2008 primary season, in apparent violation of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. Thus, there was a real controversy here. But in upholding the right of corporations and unions to make independent campaign expenditures supporting or opposing candidates, the Court sustained a “facial challenge” to the statute that the parties had agreed to dismiss, and in so doing reached out to overturn an anomalous and mistaken 1990 decision that was directly on point, even though that case was not before the Court in the initial ’go-round of Citizens United. And that, apparently, is the “judicial activism” that so exercises the Times’ editorialists.
In truth, however, the Court was following a fairly well established practice. In First Amendment speech cases, as here, the Court entertains “facial” rather than “as-applied” challenges for a very simple reason. Were the Court to have found simply that Citizens United’s rights were violated in this instance, based on these particular facts, the statutory provisions restricting those rights would be left standing, unlike with a facial challenge, and the future speech not only of Citizens United but of all others would be chilled. The First Amendment will not stand that, and the Court so ruled.
Of all people, the Times editorialists surely understand that. But in their minds, campaign finance is not speech, and so they use this decision, in light of the “tumultuous change in the recent elections,” with which the editorial begins, to make a much broader point: that the Court decided “a sweeping issue of constitutional law” by “moving past the limited controversy that was actually in the case.” Thus the Court “inserted itself where [it] has said it should be most restrained, deferring to other branches with more competence to decide questions about the workings of politics, including about the role of money.”
That’s rich – the Times championing judicial restraint. One wonders what the response would have been had the Court held that the Great Gray Lady’s corporate wealth could not be put behind campaign editorials, almost all supporting the candidates of a single party. Fortunately, the Court seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The Times editorialists are perfectly free to put their corporate wealth behind candidates, and so, now, are the rest of us – thanks to the Court’s grasping the nettle.