Whitehouse on the Citizens United Case

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has a piece in Politico today blasting the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case. That decision opened the door for unlimited corporate spending on campaigns and Whitehouse argues that it is part of a broader, pro-corporate agenda driving the court's "activist conservative bloc."

Whitehouse, in passing, notes that the court has issued a number of 5-4 decisions. And that brings to mind a recent piece by Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic that raises troubling questions about the prospects for consensus on the Roberts court. An excerpt:

In 2006, at the end of his first term on the Court, Roberts told me and others that he was concerned that his colleagues, in issuing 5-4 opinions divided along predictable lines, were acting more like law professors than members of a collegial court. His goal, he said, was to persuade his fellow justices to converge around narrow, unanimous opinions, as his greatest predecessor, John Marshall, had done. Roberts spoke about the need for justices to show humility when dealing with the First Amendment, adding that, unlike professors writing law review articles, judges should think more about their institutional role. “Yes, you may have another great idea about how to look at the First Amendment,” he said, “but, if you don’t need to share it to decide this case, then why are you doing it? And what are the consequences of that going to be?”

Since then, Roberts has presided over some narrow, unanimous (or nearly unanimous) rulings and some bitterly divisive ones. And so, it’s been hard to tell how seriously he is taking his pledge to lead the Court toward less polarizing decisions. Then came Citizens United, by far the clearest test of Roberts’s vision. There were any number of ways he could have persuaded his colleagues to rule narrowly; but Roberts rejected these options. He deputized Anthony Kennedy to write one of his characteristically grandiose decisions, challenging the president and Congress at a moment of financial crisis when the influence of money in politics--Louis Brandeis called it “our financial oligarchy”--is the most pressing question of the day. The result was a ruling so inflammatory that the president (appropriately) criticized it during his State of the Union address.

What all this says about the future of the Roberts Court is not encouraging. For the past few years, I’ve been giving Roberts the benefit of the doubt, hoping that he meant it when he talked about the importance of putting the bipartisan legitimacy of the Court above his own ideological agenda. But, while Roberts talked persuasively about conciliation, it now appears that he is unwilling to cede an inch to liberals in the most polarizing cases. If Roberts continues this approach, the Supreme Court may find itself on a collision course with the Obama administration--precipitating the first full-throttle confrontation between an economically progressive president and a narrow majority of conservative judicial activists since the New Deal.


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