Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

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:

Fixing Detention

The Obama administration performed another Friday afternoon Guantanamo news dump last week, indicating that it will probably maintain administrative military detention of combatants under a forthcoming executive order.

This is unnecessary executive unilateralism. As Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith point out in today’s Washington Post, this is a debate that ought to be held in Congress.

This would not be a tough push for Obama. The Obama administration already amended its claim of authority in a filing with the District Court for the District of Columbia, the judicial body sorting through the detainees remaining at Gitmo. Convincing Congress to ratify this decision should not be hard; the differences between the Bush administration’s “enemy combatant” criteria and what the Obama administration defines as “substantially supporting” Al Qaeda and the Taliban are minute. As I wrote in a previous post on detention definitions and decisions, the actions proscribed under these two standards and the activities constituting the “direct participation in hostilities” standard used in the case of Salim Hamdan are nearly identical.

The only positive news about the pending announcement is that the creation of a national security court specializing in detention decisions is probably not in the cards. As I have said before, national security court proposals play the propaganda game the way terrorists want to and often revive the prospect of domestic preventive detention of terror suspects, to include American citizens who would otherwise be charged with a substantive crime for domestic acts. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief opposing this practice in the Padilla case.

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.

The Importance of Just Saying No

George Will:

Conservatives are accused of being a party of “no.” Fine. That is an indispensable word in politics because most new ideas are false and mischievous. Furthermore, the First Amendment’s lovely first five words (“Congress shall make no law”) set the negative tone of the Bill of Rights, which is a list of government behaviors, from establishing religion to conducting unreasonable searches, to which the Constitution says: No.

‘The Police Became a Mob’

Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook recounts the horrific police attack on Frank Jude in a ruling this month from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. 

By way of background, Jude tagged along with some young ladies to a house party late one evening.  The party was mostly off-duty cops who immediately made Jude feel unwelcome.  Jude left after just 5 minutes, but several men followed him out to the street and accused him of stealing someone’s police badge.  Then the beating began:

Men punched Jude’s face and torso; when he fell to the ground, they kicked his head and thighs. The partygoers behaved as a mob. Not a single person in the house tried to stop the attack or even to call for aid. Jon Clausing, who had slashed Harris’s face, explained his conduct as “just kind of going along with everybody.” That is the way of the mob. Society has police forces to pose a counterweight to mobs, yet here the police became a mob.

Schabel and Martinez were on duty and had not been drinking, so they should have put a stop to the violence. Instead Schabel joined it, while Martinez watched. On being told that Jude had stolen Spengler’s badge, Schabel called Jude a “motherfucker” and stomped on his face until others could hear bones breaking. After telling Martinez “I’m really sorry you have to see this,” Daniel Masarik picked Jude off the ground and kicked him in the crotch so hard that his body left the ground. Jon Bartlett then took one of Schabel’s pens and pressed it into each of Jude’s ear canals, causing severe injury and excruciating pain. The men also broke two of Jude’s fingers by bending them back until they snapped. Spengler put a gun to Jude’s head and said: “I’m the fucking police. I can do whatever I want to do. I could kill you.” Bartlett used a knife to cut off Jude’s jacket and pants, leaving him naked on the street in a pool of his own blood.

The attack was so violent that it couldn’t be ignored.  Several officers were prosecuted, but the blue wall of silence kicked in and several officers committed perjury to shield their criminal acts.  Judge Easterbrook writes, “The distance between civilization and barbarity, and the time needed to pass from one state to the other, is depressingly short.” 

Read the whole thing (pdf).  Previous coverage here.

HT: Sentencing Law and Policy.