Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Supreme Court’
January 28th, 2010 at 10:37 am
President Smacks the Supreme Court
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The recent weeks haven’t been kind to President Obama.   Support continues to drop for his health care bill, his poll numbers are falling and his filibuster-proof majority has been lost.

Well, last night, President Obama took out some of his frustration by criticizing the Supreme Court in front of a national audience.  As the President, he has the power to trounce on judicial independence, but his display last night was historic.

According to the Legal Times, only once has a President publicly criticized the Supreme Court during a State of the Union address.   Not surprisingly, it was President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, and even FDR didn’t call for Congress to overturn the Court (thought the justices would eventually start to capitulate shortly after the address).

Here is FDR’s attempt at judicial intimidation:

The Judicial branch also is asked by the people to do its part in making democracy successful. We do not ask the Courts to call non-existent powers into being, but we have a right to expect that conceded powers or those legitimately implied shall be made effective instruments for the common good. The process of our democracy must not be imperiled by the denial of essential powers of free government.

Here is President Obama’s criticism:

Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.

As Justice Alito gestured during the remarks, the Court did not reverse “a century of law” in its Citizens United decision.  Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce was decided in 1990, not 1910.  Linda Greenhouse over at the New York Times calls out the President on this as well.

As a former constitutional law professor, President Obama should either fire his speechwriters or hit the books.

January 21st, 2010 at 4:11 pm
Highlights from Citizens United v. FEC
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Rather than trudge through the entire 183-page decision in Citizens United, here are a few choice passages from the opinion. Enjoy.

As amended by §203 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), federal law prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech that is an “electioneering communication” or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate.

In January 2008, appellant Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, released a documentary (hereinafter Hillary) critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton, a candidate for her party’s Presidential nomination. Anticipating that it would make Hillary available on cable television through video-on-demand within 30 days of primary elections. It feared, however, that both the film and the ads would be covered by §441b’s ban on corporate funded independent expenditures, thus subjecting the corporation to civil and criminal penalties under §437g.

There are short timeframes in which speech can have influence. The need or relevance of the speech will often first be apparent at this stage in the campaign. The decision to speak is made in the heat of political campaigns, when speakers react to messages conveyed by others. A speaker’s ability to engage in political speech that could have a chance of persuading voters is stifled if the speaker must first commence a protracted lawsuit.

In McConnell v. Federal Election Comm’n, this Court upheld limits on electioneering communications in a facial challenge, relying on the holding in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that political speech may be banned based on the speaker’s corporate identity. Austin “uph[eld] a direct restriction on the independent expenditure of funds for political speech for the first time in [this Court’s] history.” There, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce sought to use general treasury funds to run a newspaper ad supporting a specific candidate. Michigan law, however, prohibited corporate independent expenditures that supported or opposed any candidate for state office.

Austin is overruled, and thus provides no basis for allowing the Government to limit corporate independent expenditures.

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for engaging in political speech, but Austin’s antidistortion rationale would permit the Government to ban political speech because the speaker is an association with a corporate form.

Austin interferes with the “open marketplace”of ideas protected by the First Amendment. Its censorship is vast in its reach, suppressing the speech of both for-profit and nonprofit, both small and large, corporations.

Political speech is so ingrained in this country’s culture that speakers find ways around campaign finance laws. Rapid changes in technology—and the creative dynamic inherent in the concept of free expression—counsel against upholding a law that restricts political speech in certain media or by certain speakers.

The Government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.

January 21st, 2010 at 10:15 am
Breaking: Supreme Court Sides with First Amendment
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The long-awaited case of Citizens United v. FEC was decided today and defenders of the First Amendment received a welcome surprise.

The Court sided with Citizens United and gave another blow to McCain-Feingold’s onerous campaign finance restrictions.

Click here for the full opinion. 

The decision was 5-4, with Kennedy, Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Roberts siding with the First Amendment.  The newest justice, Sotomayor, joined with Stevens, Breyer and Ginsburg in dissent.

Here is how the Court broke down the opinion:

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA and ALITO, JJ., joined, in which THOMAS, J., joined as to all but Part IV, and in which STEVENS, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined as to Part IV. ROBERTS, C. J., filed a concurring opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined, and in which THOMAS, J., joined in part. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part,in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

January 12th, 2010 at 12:03 pm
Still Waiting on Citizens United v. FEC
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The Supreme Court, unexpectedly, did not issue its opinion in the First Amendment case of Citizens United v. FEC.  The Court heard oral arguments last September and many court watchers expected an opinion today.

Perhaps this delay means the opinion is larger and more sweeping than many observers anticipated.  The first major Supreme Court case reviewing McCain-Feingold, McConnell v. FEC, weighed in at 298 pages.  Will Citizens United top that figure?

The Court likely made up its mind last year but perhaps the long delay means that the lobbying continues.

Stay tuned for more coverage.

January 11th, 2010 at 1:07 pm
New Year, New Supreme Court Opinions
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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court resumes its 2009-2010 term with a round of two oral arguments.  Though the two cases that pit Alabama v. North Carolina and Briscoe v. Virginia have national legal implications, court watchers are eagerly awaiting other consequential decisions this term.

The fate of the First Amendment and campaign finance reform could be decided as early as tomorrow in Citizens United v. FEC.  The justices reargued the case on September 9, 2009, but the Court has yet to report a decision.  With federal primary elections less than a month away, candidates and First Amendment lawyers seek guidance from the Court as soon as possible.

The best case scenario would be a broad sweeping opinion striking down many of McCain-Feingold’s onerous First Amendment restrictions.

In addition, the spring term ushers in a new round of retirement speculation.  Justice John Paul Stevens is the oldest member of the Court, 89, and has not hired his full slate of clerks for the next Supreme Court term.

This article also mentioned the possible retirement of Justice Antonin Scalia.  Any vacancy would cause political wrangling in the Senate but a Scalia departure, coupled with President Obama’s liberal record on judges, would result in a judicial and political Armageddon unseen since the days of Judge Robert Bork.

Whatever occurs during the conclusion of this Supreme Court term will surely have major implications for individual rights and the future of our Constitution.

October 14th, 2009 at 12:59 pm
Defining “Honest Services Fraud”

There’s an old legal adage that ignorance of the law is not a defense. On the other hand, since the earliest days of our Republic the U.S. Supreme Court has refused repeated invitations to create crimes using so-called “federal common law.” The reasoning behind the Court’s reluctance goes like this. In a nation of laws – not men – people should have some kind of notice about what is and is not legally permissible. Punishing someone after the fact for an act that was legal (or, if you prefer, not illegal) at the time it was carried out is akin to the types of political prosecutions conducted under the Stuart kings of England. Allowing federal judges to apply broad principles of justice to specific facts alleged by the government to be criminal, even though there is no specific prohibition in print, is hardly an improvement. An example of how important this notice notion is to our civil order can be found in the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

What’s the point? Today the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear its third appeal in the last year regarding the meaning (and in one case, perhaps the constitutionality) of the federal crime of “honest services” fraud. The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog contains a quick synopsis of the appeals involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, Canadian newspaper mogul Conrad Black, and the class action law firm Milberg. A more extended discussion can be found at the Scotusblog website. Both are well worth the read.

In essence, critics of honest services fraud claim that it has been:

“…invoked to impose criminal penalties upon a staggeringly broad swath of behavior, including misconduct not only by public officials and employees but also by private employees and corporate fiduciaries…Without some coherent limiting principle to define what ‘intangible right of honest services’ is, whence it derives, and how it is violated, this expansive phrase invites abuse by headline-grabbing prosecutors in pursuit of local officials, state legislators, and corporate CEOs who engage in any manner of unappealing or ethically questionable conduct.”

And that’s just Justice Antonin Scalia’s view. For those interested in having readily available, clearly stated criminal laws, the Supreme Court’s decisions in these cases will be eagerly anticipated.