Tag: Supreme Court

The Unrelenting Battle over Campaign Finance

Following on the heels of November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts two weeks ago was a devastating blow to Democratic Party hopes.  But it must have been especially devastating to President Obama, who promised an adoring University of Missouri crowd, just before he was elected, that “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”  Yet it would appear, judging from the unrelenting commentary and from the president’s own behavior last week, that those losses pale in comparison to the government’s loss before the Supreme Court two days after the polls closed in Massachusetts.  For 11 days now the wailing over the Court’s Citizens United decision has not ceased.  Indeed, campaign finance regulation, intimately connected to incumbency protection, is a bedrock principle of modern liberalism.

Exhibit A is E.J. Dionne’s column today in the Washington Post – his second in a week on the subject.  Last week, railing against the “reckless decision by Chief Justice John Roberts’s Supreme Court and the greed of the nation’s financial barons,” he charged the Court with “an astonishing display of judicial arrogance, overreach and unjustified activism” and urged “a new populist-progressive alliance” to demand “legislation to turn back the Supreme Court’s effort to undermine American democracy” – including a bill prohibiting political spending by corporations who hire lobbyists, no less.

Today, however, Dionne has last Wednesday’s unseemly episode of Obama rebuking a silent Supreme Court to work with.  And, like the immortal Daniel Schorr on yesterday’s NPR Sunday Morning, he puts all the blame on Justice Samuel Alito for seeming to mouth, silently, “Not true” when Obama, before all assembled and a watching nation, tendentiously misstated the holding in Citizens United.  But Dionne doesn’t stop there, of course.  No, he thanks Alito.  You see, “Alito’s inability to restrain himself” brought a long-ignored truth to the nation:  “The Supreme Court is now dominated by a highly politicized conservative majority intent on working its will, even if that means ignoring precedents and the wishes of the elected branches of government.”  Likening Obama’s behavior to President Reagan’s writing a 1983 article criticizing Roe v. Wade – I didn’t make that up – Dionne chastises conservatives for their double standard:  “Reagan had every right to say what he did. But why do conservatives deny the same right to Obama?”  Where does one begin?

Turning finally to “the specifics of Obama’s indictment,” Dionne tries to defend the president’s misstatements, but unfortunately the precision ordinarily expected of such a wordsmith seems to have deserted him.  Citing Obama’s claim that the Court had reversed “a century of law” and also opened “the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations,” Dionne writes that ”Obama was not simply referring to court precedents but also to the 1907 Tillman Act, which banned corporate money in electoral campaigns.”  That’s not what the Tillman Act did:  It banned direct corporate contributions to campaigns.  Only in 1947 were independent campaign expenditures by corporations (and unions) banned – and more clearly so only in 1990, which is the ban the Court overturned.  Moreover, pace Obama, foreign corporations are still specifically banned from contributing anything of value “in connection with a Federal, State or local election.”  Thus, in claiming, without more, ”that the ruling opens a loophole for domestic corporations under foreign control to make unlimited campaign expenditures,” Dionne seems simply to be passing along what he’s read or heard from others.  Nothing in the Court’s opinion warrants that conclusion.

But it’s Dionne’s larger claim that most demands an answer – that an “activist” Roberts Court, exercising “raw judicial power,” is ”ignoring precedents and the wishes of the elected branches of government.”  That’s hardly the definition of “activism.”  That’s what the Court should be doing, where it’s warranted by the Constitution, whether the Court is defending the rights of blacks to attend unsegregated schools or of gays to sexual freedom or of corporate owners, the shareholders, to engage in political speech through their corporation consistent with their articles of incorporation and by-laws.  The claim that corporations aren’t people is a red herring.  Corporate owners are people, and their right to speak can take many forms.  Fortunately, we have a First Amendment, which protects not only corporate owners but E.J. himself from all but the error of his ways.

[Cross-posted at Politico Arena]

Post-State of the Union Links

  • Time for the SOTU fact check:  Cato experts put some of President Obama’s core State of the Union claims to the test. Here’s what they found.
  • During this year’s SOTU, President Obama criticized the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. Today’s podcast examines the Court’s ruling.

An Appalling Breach of Decorum

This morning, Politico Arena invites comments on Obama’s SOTU attack on the Supreme Court.

My response:

I join my Arena colleagues, Professors Bradley Smith and Randy Barnett, in condemning the president’s remarks last night singling out the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision last week, which overturned law that the government itself admitted would even have banned books.  Not only was Obama’s behavior an appalling breach of decorum, but he didn’t even get his facts right.  As Brad, former FCC chairman, noted in his Arena post last night, and a bit more fully here, the decision did nothing to upset law that prohibits foreigners, including foreign corporations, from contributing anything of value to an American election.  Obama, the sometime constitutional law professor, should have known that.  At the least, his aides had plenty of time to research the question before he spoke.  This is just one more example of the gross incompetence or, worse, the indifference to plain fact that we’ve seen in this administration.

But it’s the breach of decorum that most appalls.  By constitutional design, the Supreme Court is the non-political branch of government.  Like members of the military, Supreme Court justices are invited to the State of the Union event, but they do not stand and applaud when the president makes political points that bring others to their feet.  For the president to have singled the justices out for criticism, while others around them stood and applauded as they sat there still, is simply demagoguery at its worst.  I would not be surprised if the justices declined next year’s invitation.  And Obama wanted to change the tone in Washington?  He sure has.

NRA Cares More about NRA Than Gun Rights, Liberty, Professional Courtesy

Yesterday the Supreme Court granted the NRA’s motion for divided argument in McDonald v. Chicago.  What this means is that Alan Gura’s 30 minutes of argument time on behalf of Chicagoland gun owners just became 20, with 10 going to former Solicitor General Paul Clement, whom the NRA hired at the last minute to pursue this motion and argument.  (Full disclosure: Alan Gura is a friend of mine, and of Cato.)

The NRA’s motion was premised on the idea that Alan had not fully presented the substantive due process argument for selective incorporation of the Second Amendment – presumably out of an outsized concern for the Privileges or Immunities Clause arguments about which I’ve previously blogged and written a law review article.  This is a highly unusual argument and is a facial slap at Alan’s abilities as an advocate.  Sadly, it’s also typical of how the NRA has behaved throughout this case and before that during the Heller litigation – sabotaging Alan at every turn and showing again and again that, even in the face of winning arguments that fully support its legal positions, the NRA prefers to seek glory for itself rather than presenting the strongest case for its purported constituency of gun owners.

Alan rightfully opposed the NRA’s motion because the group’s participation at argument adds nothing substantive to the case. No one will ever know why the motion was granted, as the Court need not (and did not) provide any reasons.  Nonetheless, it’s a safe bet that this is solely a testament to Clement’s talent and reputation (notably, the motion was not filed by any of the NRA’s other excellent attorneys, who briefed and argued their case in the lower courts and in a cert petition and brief before the Supreme Court).

I have great respect for Paul Clement, and have worked with him by filing amicus briefs in two cases he’s already argued this term, but I do take issue with his repeated suggestion that the motion’s purpose – and the reason behind its granting – was so that “all the avenues to incorporation, including the due process clause, are fully explored at the argument.”  This kind of comment – again impugning Alan’s litigation strategy – is uncalled for, and renews concerns over the NRA’s conduct.

Throughout this case, Alan has consistently and forcefully advocated for the Second Amendment’s incorporation under the Due Process Clause.  That didn’t change when his case was taken up by the Supreme Court.  The thing is that the due process arguments are not all that complex, and simply do not merit the same care and attention in the briefs as arguments based on the Constitution’s actual text and history.  A first-year law student who’s taken constitutional law – let alone a Supreme Court clerk – could write a due process incorporation argument in her sleep!  In any event, the oral argument will be driven by the justices’ questions, not by any long soliloquies by counsel.  Alan’s – and all attorneys’ – job is to be ready for anything.

If the NRA were concerned about the final outcome of the case, it would be unlikely to attack Alan’s strategy or question his preparation (an odd way to be “helpful” to one’s side).  It is not a stretch to predict that this case will be favorably decided at least in part on due process grounds, however, so what we are seeing here is likely an attempt by the NRA to position itself as responsible for such a victory – and that Alan isn’t.

Ultimately, then, the NRA is engaging here in fundraising, not liberty-promotion or ethical lawyering.

Don’t Fear the Foreigner

You might have heard that the Citizens United decision will allow foreign corporations to become involved in American campaigns. You might have heard that from the President, in fact, whose speech decrying the decision said foreign corporations “may now get into the act” of pursuing their “special interests” in American politics.

Not true. Justice Kennedy explicitly says the Court did not decide whether Congress has the power to prevent “foreign individuals or associations from influencing our Nation’s political process.” Nothing in Citizens United prevents Congress from prohibiting such political spending by foreign corporations. The Supreme Court might uphold such a law or it might strike it down. The upholding or the striking down of such a law was left for another day. (Other parts of existing laws would also probably preclude foreign nationals or corporations from getting involved in American elections, as Brad Smith argues).

I don’t think I like the new populist Obama as much as I did the old rationalist Obama. The old Obama would have read a Supreme Court opinion before talking publicly about it.

Democracy Will Survive Citizens United

At Politico Arena, today’s focus is on the Court and campaign finance.

My comment:

The ink is barely dry on today’s Citizens United opinion, and the hysteria has already begun.  Set aside the misunderstandings we’re seeing in some of the comments here at the Arena – corporations still cannot, for example, contribute directly to campaigns – even some of those who understand the law and this decision would have us believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end.  Thus, the inimitable Rick Hasen, whose knowledge of these issues is second to none, tells us that “today’s Supreme Court opinion marks a very bad day for American democracy.”  And attorneys at NYU’s Brennan Center, which made its reputation promoting campaign finance “reform,” head up their post with this: “After the Flood: How to Save Democracy Post Citizens United.”  One imagines the Dark Ages just beyond the gloaming.
 
Over on the Hill, meanwhile, Senator Russ Feingold, who’s having a bad day in what must for him be a bad week, promises darkly, “In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”
 
Relax.  Half of our states, states like Virginia, have minimal campaign finance laws, and there’s no more corruption in those states than in states that strictly regulate.  And that’s because the real reason we have this campaign finance law is not, and never has been, to prevent corruption.  The dirty little secret – the real impetus for this law – in incumbency protection.  How else to explain the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment, which the Court struck down in 2008.  That little gem in the McCain-Feingold “reform” package exempted candidates (read: incumbents) from the law’s strictures if they were running against a self-financed “millionaire,” who could not be prohibited from spending his own money campaigning.  Thus, the nominal rationale for the incomprehensible edifice we call “campaign finance law” – to prohibit corruption – suddenly disappeared if you were running against a millionaire.  Well, the Court, fortunately, saw right through that.  And a majority on the Court saw the light in today’s decision, too.  The First Amendment is not a “loophole.”  It’s the very foundation of our democracy, and we are the stronger today for this decision.