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Three Bad Rulings
Published: June 26, 2007
The Supreme Court hit the trifecta yesterday: Three cases involving the First Amendment. Three dismaying decisions by Chief Justice John Roberts’s new conservative majority.
Chief Justice Roberts and the four others in his ascendant bloc used the next-to-last decision day of this term to reopen the political system to a new flood of special-interest money, to weaken protection of student expression and to make it harder for citizens to challenge government violations of the separation of church and state. In the process, the reconfigured court extended its noxious habit of casting aside precedents without acknowledging it — insincere judicial modesty scored by Justice Antonin Scalia in a concurring opinion.
First, campaign finance. Four years ago, a differently constituted court upheld sensible provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act designed to prevent corporations and labor unions from circumventing the ban on their spending in federal campaigns by bankrolling phony “issue ads.” These ads purport to just educate voters about a policy issue, but are really aimed at a particular candidate.
The 2003 ruling correctly found that the bogus issue ads were the functional equivalent of campaign ads and upheld the Congressional restrictions on corporate and union money. Yet the Roberts court shifted course in response to sham issue ads run on radio and TV by a group called Wisconsin Right to Life with major funding from corporations opposed to Senator Russell Feingold, the Democrat who co-authored the act.
It opened a big new loophole in time to do mischief in the 2008 elections. The exact extent of the damage is unclear. But the four dissenters were correct in warning that the court’s hazy new standard for assessing these ads is bound to invite evasion and fresh public cynicism about big money and politics.
The decision contained a lot of pious language about protecting free speech. But magnifying the voice of wealthy corporations and unions over the voice of candidates and private citizens is hardly a free speech victory. Moreover, the professed devotion to the First Amendment did not extend to allowing taxpayers to challenge White House aid to faith-based organizations as a violation of church-state separation. The controlling opinion by Justice Samuel Alito offers a cockeyed reading of precedent and flimsy distinctions between executive branch initiatives and Congressionally authorized spending to deny private citizens standing to sue. That permits the White House to escape accountability when it improperly spends tax money for religious purposes.
Nor did the court’s concern for free speech extend to actually allowing free speech in the oddball case of an Alaska student who was suspended from high school in 2002 after he unfurled a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” while the Olympic torch passed. The ruling by Chief Justice Roberts said public officials did not violate the student’s rights by punishing him for words that promote a drug message at an off-campus event. This oblique reference to drugs hardly justifies such mangling of sound precedent and the First Amendment.