Tuesday, February 9, 2010




Yesterday I wrote to explain how the Supreme Court erred in its recent decision granting corporations unlimited freedom to make "independent expenditures" that advocate for Federal election candidates: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. __(2010)(slip op.). I confined my analysis to the assertion that Congress had good reason to restrict corporations' ability to distort public debate by buying up all the airtime around elections. See, e.g., 2 U.S.C. § 441(b). I noted that according full First Amendment protection to corporations makes it difficult for individuals to voice their First Amendment rights. I also lamented the Court's decision to overrule an earlier case that concluded the same things: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990).

Today I continue my analysis on a new point: The Court's utterly hypocritical "commitment" to the legal doctrine "stare decisis." In my view, the Court overrules prior cases when its membership changes, not because monumental social changes render prior decisions "unworkable" or "anachronistic." Citizens United affirms my cynicism on this issue: The fact that both men (Republicans) who voted against Austin in 1990 now vote to overrule it in 2010 says it clearly enough. This is not about policy. It is about politics.

Stare decisis is a judicial custom in common law countries like Great Britain and the United States. In Latin, it means "stand by the decision." Its technical legal meaning does not differ much. It admonishes judges to decide cases according to principles announced in similar past cases. When an older case provides an answer to a question, stare decisis obligates judges to provide the same answer in a case raising the same question. In practice, stare decisis reinforces respect for the judicial system because it informs citizens how judges will rule in particular circumstances. It also reinforces respect for the so-called "rule of law" in society: The idea that power flows from neutral legal principles, not men's individual caprice.

Yet everyone agrees that stare decisis is not the right policy in every circumstance. It makes no sense to follow ancient cases to resolve modern dilemmas. After all, if judges strictly observed stare decisis in every case, we would still live under cases like Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the infamous decision that permitted legal racial segregation in 1896. Everyone knows that Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), overruled Plessy in 1954. The Supreme Court refused to follow stare decisis in that case; and for good reason. Plessy did not make sense any more. It could not be reconciled with constitutional liberty and equality principles. And society had changed in fundamental ways between 1896 and 1954. Those considerations all warranted abandoning stare decisis to overrule the past decision: By 1954, Plessy had degenerated into a pernicious historical "anachronism."

But the Court wanders into extremely dangerous territory when it overrules cases on less compelling grounds. Stare decisis is the rule, not the exception. And when the Supreme Court overrules cases every few years simply because its membership changes, it inflicts the damage that stare decisis is intended to avoid: The cynical public perception that the Court is not committed to law and constitutional principle, but rather to politics and raw power.

Politics and raw power certainly won the day in Citizens United. I have long been cynical about the Supreme Court and its increasingly mordant, political tone. I have long known that its current conservative majority will not "stand by decisions" it does not like. Yet it will certainly "stand by decisions" that match its political colors. That is why it does not surprise me that it lightly overruled Austin on the corporate election funding question, even though people do not view that question much differently today than they did in 1990. If anything, the reasons that justified Austin's hostility toward corporate political power are more compelling today than they were then.

Justice Kennedy knows this all too well. After all, none other than Justice Kennedy sang a sweeping ode to stare decisis just eighteen years ago in the case that saved abortion rights: Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). It was Justice Kennedy who signed on to this formula for stare decisis: "[W]hen this Court reexamines a prior holding, its judgment is customarily informed by a series of prudential and pragmatic considerations designed to test the consistency of overruling a prior decision with the ideal of the rule of law, and to gauge the respective costs of reaffirming and overruling a prior case." Id. at 854-855. Sounds like he takes stare decisis pretty seriously, doesn't it?

You have no idea how seriously. Justice Kennedy even approved four detailed factors to determine whether it would "undermine the rule of law" to overrule a prior constitutional case: "[W]e may ask whether (1) the rule has proved intolerable simply in defying practical workability, whether (2) the rule is subject to a kind of reliance that would lend a special hardship to the consequences of overruling and add inequity to the cost of repudiation, whether (3) related principles of law have so far developed as to have left the old rule no more than a remnant of abandoned doctrine, or whether (4) facts have so changed or come to be seen so differently, as to have robbed the old rule of significant application or justification." Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 855 (enumeration and emphasis added).

In Casey, the Court spent many painstaking pages applying the four stare decisis factors. Justice Kennedy joined the analysis in full. He thought it would "undermine the rule of law" to overrule Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 110 (1973), just nineteen years after the Court decided it. In sum, Justice Kennedy doggedly defended stare decisis in Casey. He voted to "stand by" the decision.

But where was that doggedness in Citizens United? And what happened to the delicate, detailed stare decisis factors that guided Justice Kennedy's analysis in Casey? They are nowhere to be found. Rather, Justice Kennedy employs a much more nebulous stare decisis test in Citizens United: "Beyond workability, the relevant factors in deciding whether to adhere to the principle of stare decisis include the antiquity of the precedent, the reliance interests at stake, and of course whether the decision was well reasoned." Citizens United, 558 U.S. __ (slip op. at 47)(emphasis added).

What the hell does "well reasoned" mean? What possible objective guidance does that factor provide? It is no surprise that the Court in Casey did not employ a "well reasoned" test in deciding whether to overrule Roe v. Wade. If it had, it would have merely invited the Justices to import their own political sensibilities to determine whether to overrule it. Yet that is Justice Kennedy's test in deciding whether to overrule a 20-year-old precedent about the integrity of American democracy. And with a standard like "well reasoned," you know how it came out.

I find it significant that Justice Kennedy changed his own standards to overrule Austin. After all, if he had applied the painstaking stare decisis factors he endorsed in Casey, he would not have reached the same conclusion. In Austin, the Court held that restrictions on corporate "independent expenditures" advocating Federal candidates were justified in order to curb "corruption and the appearance of corruption," as well as to curtail the disproportionate influence that "immense aggregations of wealth" wield upon the American political process. Austin, 494 U.S. 659-660.

Under the Casey standard for stare decisis, I do not see how this rule has become "unworkable." For generations now, corporations have learned to cope with campaign financing restrictions. They know they have to create "political action committees" in order to advertise for candidates they like. This satisfies Casey's "practical workability" factor.

Second, the American public has placed reliance on Austin's rule. Americans understand that corporations project enormous power in government; and most Americans rightly worry that corporations' financial advantages grant them unfair political leverage. Congress' corporate campaign funding restrictions assured the American people that the law acts to "prevent corruption" in the political process and to curtail the "corrosive" effects of "immense aggregations of wealth" on elections. In this sense, Austin's rule satisfies Casey's "reliance" factor.

Third, the law has not substantially changed on the corporate political speech question since 1990. Not much can happen in constitutional law over such a short period. Constitutional developments take decades. Historically, they coincide with social upheaval. Social changes in American society rewrote the law when the Court overruled Plessy v. Ferguson in 1954. Sixty years, two world wars, a Depression and an atomic bomb had intervened to completely change the way Americans viewed the world. Against that backdrop, it is not surprising that the Court changed the law to keep up.

It is facetious to argue that such monumental social and legal changes have occurred in American society since 1990. In fact, Americans expect government to act against corporate overreaching. By overruling Austin's rule on this point, the Court completely ignores Casey's third factor concerning "fundamental legal change." That is why Justice Kennedy did not even mention this factor in his opinion. See Citizens United, 558 U.S. __(2010)(slip op. at 47).

Fourth, all the facts that supported Austin remain as true today as they did in 1990. Austin posited that restrictions on corporate speech were necessary to prevent corruption and unfairness in the American political process engendered by "massive aggregations of corporate wealth." Those facts formed the basis for the decision. Congress proceeded on those facts when it enacted the corporate campaign finance law.

If anything, those facts are even more true today. There is a rampant public perception that corporate wealth skews political transparency. Cynicism dominates rhetoric about corporate interference in politics. Austin fulfilled Casey's fourth factor on this point: Facts about corporate political spending have not "so changed or become so different as to have robbed [Austin's] rule of significant application or justification." Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 855. Put succinctly, those facts have not changed at all.

Again, it is hardly surprising that Justice Kennedy did not list the "factual change" factor in his Citizens United analysis. Instead, he merely invents a new standard: Whether the prior case was "well reasoned." See Citizens United, 558 U.S. __(2010)(slip op. 47). After all, if he had applied his own test from 1992, he could not in good faith have argued that "facts about corporate influence on politics" have significantly changed in twenty years. So he just ignored what he said in 1992 and made up something else.

See how easy it is to be a Supreme Court justice? You don't even have to stick to what you said before. You can just make things up as you go--as long as you get five votes on it.

But this is all very sad. After all, stare decisis exists to preserve public faith in our Judiciary. If the public sees--as it must now--that the Court willingly discards recent precedent simply because Republicans have more seats than Democrats, it will conclude that the Court is no better than Congress. Yet the Court is supposed to be our "independent branch," an erudite institution that rules on lasting constitutional principle, not casual politics. When the Court coarsely disregards recent precedent--especially on explosive political issues like election control--it sullies itself in ways that are difficult to repair. When the Court acts like this, it invites the same dismissive cynicism that the public usually reserves for elected officials. Principle means nothing. The Court just devolves into another political battleground.

And shame on Justice Kennedy. His hypocrisy has reached epic levels. He does not even apply his own lofty rhetoric about stare decisis. Rather, he abandons it the moment he encounters a case with which he "disagrees." He dissented in Austin twenty years ago. Then he joined an opinion that passionately defended stare decisis two years later. On that basis, one might think he would think twice about lightly overruling recent cases. But instead he overruled Austin without even using the grandiose stare decisis test he so forcefully advocated in Casey. This time, he did not even spend three pages dismissing stare decisis.

He really must not have liked Austin.

Apparently, our Constitution now functions according to a new test: Whether Justice Kennedy likes a case. Thankfully for him, he has four guys who will stand with him in most situations. And all you need is five.


SteveW said...

How do you come to terms with allowing Congress to apply this limitation to speech, but not to limit the speech of news corporations? Many liberty-minded folks would die on the hill of allowing the NY Times to publish troop movements during war time, but insist that it's OK to allow a 60-day blockout of speech near an election. How can these positions be reconciled?

If you say that we know what news corporations look like, what about the GM Media corporation that will spring up in response? Or are you really OK with limiting news corporation speech as well?

Am I forcing you into a false dichotomy here, and if so in what way?

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Congress' prior limitations on independent corporate expenditures did not reach so-called "news corporations." The statutory scheme provided a specific exception for traditional news outlets. For some reason, today's Court forgot to mention that exception; I found it interesting that Austin spent a good deal of time on it in order to justify corporate speech restrictions in 1990. After all, the Court in 1990 assured itself that some restrictions on corporate speech were reasonable as long as the statute provided exceptions for bona fide news outlets.

Under the old scheme, I suppose corporations could have gamed the system as long as they merely created separate "news corporations" or "entities designed to broadcast political messages." That was a loophole even before the Court invalidated the statute in this case. Now, they don't even have to worry about creating puppet news corporations. They can just speak as regular for-profit corporations without limitation. They don't even have to file a separate corporate name, like "GM Special Political Action Corp." GM does fine.

I don't think that's a good result because it allows corporations to speak with disproportionate power in political life.

About the distinction between publishing troop movements and blocking corporate election expenditures, I would argue that different concerns justify the restrictions. The First Amendment always yields to pressing national security interests. But national elections do not implicate the same concerns. I think it's reasonable to ban some corporate speech in order to protect our electoral process from distortion and the appearance of undue influence. By a different token, I think it's reasonable to ban the NY Times from publishing troop movements in order to protect troops in the field. It's a question of justifications; and that's what matters when it comes to restrictions on First Amendment freedoms.