Tag: Supreme Court

The Roberts Revolution to Come

As I mentioned yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many people by ordering a reargument in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the Court called for the parties to the case to address the question of overruling Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1989.  The state of Michigan had prohibited corporations from spending money on electoral speech. In the case in question, the Chamber of Commerce wished to pay for an advertisement backing a candidate for the House of Representatives. The Chamber took this action on its own and not in tandem with the candidate or his party.  Paying for the ad was a felony under Michigan law.

A majority of the Court in 1989 said the Michigan law did not violate the First Amendment. However, the majority had a problem. Previous cases permitted limits on funding electoral speech only in pursuit of a compelling state interest: the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The Court had also ruled that independent spending by groups could not corrupt candidates.

So the majority needed a novel rationale for approving Michigan’s suppression of speech. The majority concluded that speech funded by corporations would distort the democratic process and that the state could prohibits such outlays to prevent harms done by “immense wealth.” In other words, the Austin majority tried to redefine “corruption” as “inequality of influence.” That revision had its own set of problems. Buckely v. Valeo, the Ur-decision in campaign finance, had excluded equality as a compelling state interest justifying regulation of campaign finance.

It is easy to see why the Buckley Court had rejected equality of influence as a reason for restricting political speech. Imagine Congress could prohibit speech that had “too much influence.” But how could that be determined? A majority in Congress would be tempted to suppress speech that threatened the power of that majority.  Paradoxically, the equality rationale would strengthen those who already held power while vitiating representative government. The First Amendment tries to prevent that outcome.

In last year’s decision in Davis v. FEC, the Court again rejected the equality rationale for campaign finance laws.  More and more the Austin decision is looking like bad law.

Justices Kennedy and Scalia, both current members of the Court, wrote dissents in Austin. Justice Thomas has called for Austin to be overruled in other contexts.  Neither Justices Roberts nor Alito is likely to vote to uphold Austin (or the relevant parts of McConnell v. FEC for that matter). But it would seem that either or both of them were unwilling to strike down a precedent without a formal hearing. That hearing will come on September 9 with a decision expected by Thanksgiving.

Almost six years after the Court utterly refused to defend free speech in McConnell v. FEC, the Roberts Court may be ready to vindicate the First Amendment against its accusers in Congress and elsewhere.

Citizens United Case to Be Reargued in Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to decide in its current term the campaign finance case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Instead, the Court issued an order that the case should be reargued. The parties in the reargument should address the question of whether the Court should overrule two of its earlier decisions. In the Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Court held that state legislatures may prohibit spending by businesses on electoral speech. In McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the Court validated limitations on electoral speech in McCain-Feingold.

The Court could have decided Citizens United on relatively narrow grounds. Instead, it has explicitly drawn into question two of its precedents upholding limitations on political speech. It seems likely that five members of the Court are prepared to overrule both precedents, but at least one justice was unwilling to do so without a formal argument.

We appear to be on the brink of a significant liberalization of campaign finance law.

For more on this important case, see below:

The Ricci Ruling: A Victory for Merit over Racial Politics

Ricci is a victory for merit over racial politics—which is appropriate given that the ruling overturns a lower court panel that included Sonia Sotomayor.

In the blockbuster decision we’d been awaiting all term, the Court reached the correct result: The government can’t make employment decisions based on race. While the city’s desire to get more blacks into leadership positions at the fire department is commendable, it cannot pursue this goal by denying promotions simply because those who earned them happen to have an inconvenient skin color.

This ruling is the latest in a series of steps the Court has taken to strike down race-conscious actions that violate individual rights—and thus is a blow both to the Obama administration (which sided with the city in Ricci) and to the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. Those who bring cases before the courts deserve much more than empathy or even “sympathy”—the word Justice Ginsburg uses in her dissent—they deserve equal treatment under the law.

Supreme Court Rules on Ricci v. DeStefano

In its opinion today in Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court came down solidly for upholding the equal protection of the law.

The political implications of this decision for the Sotomayor nomination are several, but her refusal to wrestle with the important issues at stake and to side summarily with the city, together with her many statements off the bench about “identity politics,” should make for very interesting confirmation hearings just two weeks ahead.

The Court reversed the decision of the Second Circuit panel on which Judge Sonya Sotomayor sat, which had upheld, summarily, the lower court’s decision to allow the city of New Haven to throw out the results of a racially neutral promotion exam for city firefighters after whites did better than blacks on the exam.

As the Court said, all the evidence suggests that the city rejected the test results because the higher scoring candidates were white. The city’s rationale for engaging in this intentional discrimination was to avoid a suit by black firefighters. But the city could take the position it did only if there were strong evidence that its test was racially biased or not job related or that there was some other equally valid non-discriminatory test that the city refused to administer. There was no such evidence, the Court concluded. Had the city been sued by the black firefighters, it would have won.

Thus, it’s rationale for throwing out the test results will not withstand scrutiny. The city engaged in outright intentional discrimination.

One Year After Heller

One year ago today, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller. The decision affirmed the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to keep and bear arms and invalidated the District of Columbia’s draconian gun control regime.

The case generated a storm of media attention. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, one of nearly four dozen in the case.

The Cato Institute held a forum for Brian Doherty’s book chronicling this victory for liberty, Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle Over the Second Amendment. The Heller case also figured prominently in Cato multimedia from Robert A. Levy and Clark Neily.

Heller did not settle all of the questions related to the right to keep and bear arms. The incorporation of the Second Amendment against state bans and regulations is currently being litigated across the country. A three-judge panel in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Second Amendment is incorporated against the states. The Seventh Circuit and Second Circuit disagreed. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was on the Second Circuit panel that declined to incorporate the Second Amendment, and Roger Pilon notes that this may play into her confirmation hearings. The circuit split on incorporation sets the stage for a further appeal to the Supreme Court, and Alan Gura and the National Rifle Association have both filed petitions for a writ of certiorari. Robert A. Levy discusses this in his recent Cato podcast.

It will be interesting to see what the next year brings for the Second Amendment.

Victory for Decency at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Safford Unified School District #1 et al. v. Redding was a victory for privacy and decency. The Court held that a middle school violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a thirteen-year-old girl by strip searching her in a failed effort to find Ibuprofen pills and an over-the-counter painkiller.

The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, joined by the Rutherford Institute and the Goldwater Institute, opposing such abuses of school officials’ authority. The search in this case should have ended with the student’s backpack and pockets; forcing a teenage girl to pull her bra and panties away from her body for visual inspection is an invasion of privacy that must be reserved for extreme cases. School officials should be authorized to conduct such a search only when they have credible evidence that the student is in possession of objects posing a danger to the school and that the student has hidden them in a place that only a strip search will uncover.

Today’s decision should not come as a surprise. School officials were not granted unlimited police power in the seminal student search case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. Justice Stevens explored the limits of school searches in his partial concurrence and partial dissent, specifically mentioning strip searches. “To the extent that deeply intrusive searches are ever reasonable outside the custodial context, it surely must only be to prevent imminent, and serious harm.”

The Fourth Amendment exists to preserve a balance between the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the state’s need for order and security. Unnecessarily traumatizing students with invasive and humiliating breaches of personal privacy upsets this balance. Today’s decision restores reasonable limits to student searches and provides valuable guidance to school officials.

The Supreme Court Decision on NAMUDNO v. Holder

In the case of Northwest Austin Municipal District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder, the Supreme Court issued a narrow decision today that avoided ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 requires any change in election administration in certain states and counties—mostly but not exclusively in the South—to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. As I wrote earlier, this is a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.

The ruling correctly allows a small utility district (and other political subdivisions) to seek relief—known as a “bailout”—from the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s onerous pre-clearance requirements. There is simply no reason for jurisdictions that have, at worst, gone decades without any voter intimidation or disenfranchisement—where the Act succeeded in stamping out or preventing racial discrimination—to continue to go before the Department of Justice for the most innocuous changes in state and municipal election procedures.

Here, for example, an electoral district that wasn’t even created until 1987 wants to move its polling locations from private garages to public schools, for ease of voting. Since Congress amended the Act in 1982, only 17 of 12,000 covered jurisdictions have been able to come out from under the thumb of federal oversight. Congress clearly never intended it to be so difficult to escape having to seek federal approval for such minor changes in election procedure.

This is one “bailout” that actually saves taxpayer money and makes common sense.

Unfortunately, the constitutionality of the Act’s Section 5—in the absence of the “exceptional conditions” the Court cited in 1966 as justifying “extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system”—remains in doubt. While it is a close call whether the Court need resolve that issue to dispose of the NAMUDNO case, Section 5’s validity as a matter of constitutional law and public policy is assuredly not a close call.

As Chief Justice Roberts notes in his majority opinion: “The evil that § 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.”

Indeed, blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are exceedingly rare. Minority candidates run for and hold office at unprecedented rates—particularly in the South. The racial gap in voter registration—the primary concern of the VRA—is higher nationwide than it is in the covered states; in some covered states, blacks register and vote at higher rates than whites.

As Justice Thomas says in his partial dissent: “Admitting that a prophylactic law as broad as § 5 is no longer constitutionally justified based on current evidence of discrimination is not a sign of defeat. It is an acknowledgement of victory.”