Did the Roberts Court misjudge the public mood on campaign finance reform?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Jan. 25 2010 2:09 PM

Speeding Locomotive

Did the Roberts Court misjudge the public mood on campaign finance reform?

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Besides, the justices had already launched a constitutional trial balloon and drawn relatively little fire. The provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act struck down this week had been all but gutted in a 2007 case, Wisconsin Right to Life. In that case, the chief justice and Justice Alito had declined to overturn the ban on corporate campaign expenditures outright and refused to overrule Austin. Nothing terrible happened. Now that Kennedy had his five votes, you can see why he didn't want to turn back.

Also, there was the pressure exerted by rising expectations. When the justices suggested last spring that Austin was on the line, the number of amicus briefs filed in this case jumped from 12 to 42. With all those cheers behind him, how could the engineer hesitate to send the train hurtling down the track?

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Consider, too, that Anthony Kennedy is actually the one tone-deaf guy on the usually pitch-perfect Roberts Court. He thrives on being the swing justice, a man of history. But unlike his predecessor in that role, Sandra Day O'Connor, his chest cavity does not include a built-in barometer of the public mood. Kennedy's nothing if not self-assured; he has a sense of rectitude that inclines him to plunge forward once he's made up his mind. For him, glittering generalities like "[s]peech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people" are what it takes to decide cases. Citizens United sat at the junction of issues about which Kennedy cares desperately: judicial supremacy and the First Amendment. And you could see how he might get confused about the likely reception to the ruling: The media usually praise him when he stands up for free speech.

All this bad timing brings to mind another one of history's great Supreme Court train wrecks, Miranda v. Arizona. You know that one—the Warren Court's ruling in 1966 requiring police officers to read suspects their rights. Until Miranda, the Warren Court's adventures in protecting suspects' and defendants' rights had gone down with surprising ease: Race was implicated in it all, and people were generally supportive of the court's efforts to make the criminal justice system more fair. But by the time a 5-4 court handed down Miranda, things had changed. Crime rates had soared. Fear of the violent streets had replaced a fading Communist threat. Members of Congress were treated to a chart tying each and every jump in the crime rate to a new Warren Court decision coddling criminals. Nixon ran against the Warren Court and won. Soon it was the Burger Court.

The Miranda disaster needn't have happened. People knew that the potential—and actual—coercion in police station backrooms was a problem. The American Law Institute already had under consideration a model statute to address problems with police interrogation. Well-respected judges literally took to the stump, begging the court to wait. But Earl Warren, that self-confident former prosecutor and governor, knew better. Or he thought he did. No one was going to steal the limelight from Warren's court. And apparently not Kennedy's, either.

There are a good many self-conscious signals in the Citizens United opinion that the engineer knew deep down that he might be speeding down the track too swiftly. Fully 15 of Kennedy's 60-page opus are spent explaining why the court simply could not turn down any of the alternate, less dramatic routes offered up by the parties and amici. The chief justice and Alito added many, similar words in a concurrence, just to emphasize why all this had to happen right now. Maybe that signals that at the last minute, some of the justices realized there was an unexpected bend in the road. They hurtled ahead anyway.

Barry Friedman is the Jacob D. Fuchsberg professor of law at New York University School of Law and the author of The Will of the People.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

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