This Is What Political Judging Looks Like

Today, as I predicted six months ago, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Montana Supreme Court’s attempt to nullify the controversial 2010 decision of Citizens United v. FEC. The Montana Supreme Court had essentially ruled that Citizens United is a decision based on facts rather than law—that is, that Montana’s situation of corporate corruption in elections was factually unique, thus exempting the state from compliance with Citizens United. In an admirable dissent, Justice James C. Nelson explained precisely where the court went wrong:

Unquestionably, Montana has its own unique history.  No doubt Montana also has compelling interests in preserving the integrity of its electoral process and in encouraging the full participation of its electorate.  And Montana may indeed be more vulnerable than other states to corporate domination of the political process.  But the notion argued by the Attorney General and adopted by the Court—that these characteristics entitle Montana to a special “no peeing” zone in the First Amendment swimming pool—is simply untenable under Citizens United.

Admittedly, I have never had to write a more frustrating dissent.  I agree, at least in principle, with much of the Court’s discussion and with the arguments of the Attorney General.   More to the point, I thoroughly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.  I  agree, rather,  with the eloquent and, in my view, better-reasoned dissent of Justice Stevens.  As a result, I find myself in the distasteful position of having to defend the applicability of a controlling precedent with which I profoundly disagree.

That said, this case is ultimately not about my agreement or disagreement with the Attorney General or our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the Citizens United decision. Whether we agree  with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment is irrelevant.  In accordance with our federal system of government, our obligations here are to acknowledge that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the United States Constitution is, for better or for worse, binding on this Court and on the officers of this state, and to apply the law faithful to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s reliably liberal justices did not take the same admirable position as Justice Nelson. In a situation when they should have unanimously asserted the Supreme Court’s position as the final expositor the Constitution and chastised the Montana Supreme Court for its temerity, justices Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Ginsberg instead decided to re-visit their opposition to Citizens United. All four justices re-registered their dissent with Citizens United, but they did not go so far as to vote to re-hear the case. And given that only four votes are required to grant certiorari, re-hearing the case was an option available to them. It’s good they did not go this far. However, while I am a believer in registering principled dissents, this was not the time to do so. In addition to being constitutionally incorrect, overturning Citizens United after just two years on the books would have severely impaired the legitimacy of the Court.

This is what political judging looks like. While it has become de rigueur to refer to the five conservative justices as being mere pawns of their political opinions, such attacks are hardly ever leveled against the four reliable liberal justices. Here, however, they were driven by their political opinions rather than their duties as Supreme Court justices bound to ensure that the Constitution applies equally in every state.

My colleague John Samples has more here.