Roberts Court

  • September 18, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Gene R. Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, UNC School of Law. This post is part of our 2013 Constitution Day symposium.

    In October, the Roberts Court will hear yet another case designed to allow it to work its unfettered magic on American campaign finance. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission will consider whether to unleash billions more dollars into the political system. As Ron White would put it, “now there’s some good news.”  

    McCutcheon asks, specifically, whether the almost forty-year-old aggregate limit on the amount any contributor can give directly to federal candidates and parties – now set at $123,200 – must fall. In what will likely be the Court’s most fateful campaign reform decision since Citizens United, there’s little doubt the cap will go. Who could possibly endure a political system that limits a person’s direct contributions to a measly one-eighth of a million dollars per cycle?   

    Having already laid waste to expenditure limitations in Citizens United, McCutcheon will, for the first time, invalidate a federal campaign contribution limit. It won’t be the last.

    Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General, has written that the McCutcheon case is “a not very thinly disguised first step to try to get an absolute, anything goes, no limits, regime on campaign contributions.” One could quibble, perhaps, with “first step’ moniker. But you get the point.

    It’s hard to believe, to be candid, that the uber-rich have a lot more they want to say politically. But apparently there is a good deal more they seek to buy. And on this potent and democracy-debilitating mission, John Roberts and The Four are just their huckleberry.

    One might think the purveyors of cash register politics would be satisfied with a system that allows private equity titans to pay half the income tax rate of fire fighters; gives massive subsidies to corporate farms as it slashes food stamps; and bails out Wall Street while it increases the payroll tax; but not so. More is, after all, better. And all is, apparently, best.

  • July 3, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Professor Anthony F. Renzo. Professor Renzo is teaching Constitutional Rights at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

    The close of the latest term of the Roberts Court provided more evidence of the conservative majority’s interest in protecting corporate America and government officials from being held accountable for violating the rights of everyday Americans. This includes hostility to challenges to abusive and unconstitutional actions by the federal government in its perpetual war on terror and the massive spying network that this war has spawned.

    The prime example from the latest term is the high court’s opinion in Clapper v. Amnesty International, which slammed the courthouse doors on a challenge to the broad and unchecked spying powers authorized by Congress in the 2008 Amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)(50 U.S.C. § 1881a.)  That Amendment, §1881a, vastly expands the government’s electronic surveillance powers by authorizing sweeping wiretaps even if the targets are not foreign agents or linked directly to terrorism. These powers include dragnet type surveillance operations of large categories of phone or email addresses that are not limited to any one individual or any particular place. While the statute limits targets to “non-U.S. persons,” the private conversations of those targets with American citizens and residents are not excluded from its scope. In any event, to the extent the statute imposes any meaningful limitations on the scope of the surveillance it authorizes, these limitations do not have the force of law because §1881a eliminates the requirement of a judicial warrant based on individualized probable cause. In effect, §1881a  strips the FISA Court of its checking power, replacing independent judicial review with a certification process that effectively makes the assertions of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence conclusive evidence of the legality of the Executive’s own spying operations with no meaningful judicial oversight or constitutional scrutiny.

  • June 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has been itching to gut the landmark Voting Rights Act for some time and today it took a big step toward doing so. The conservative bloc led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which includes a formula for determining the states, towns and localities that must obtain approval or preclearance from the federal government for proposed changes to their voting laws and procedures.

    In its 2009 opinion in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Mukasey, the conservative justices avoided the constitutional challenge to the heart of the Voting Rights Act, but nonetheless reiterated their desire to gut it.

    This time around a constitutional challenge brought by officials in a mostly white Alabama County gave the conservative bloc what it needed. Writing for the majority in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts noted that in Northwest, his conservative colleagues “expressed serious doubt about the Act’s continued constitutionality.”

    Roberts continued, “We explained that Sec. 5 ‘imposes substantial federalism costs’ and ‘differentiates between States, despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty.’ We also noted that ‘[t]hings have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.’ Finally we questioned whether the problems that Sec. 5 meant to address were still ‘concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.’” Sec. 4 includes the forumla for deciding what jursidictions must comply with the VRA's Sec. 5 preclearance provision. 

    Though the case raised constitutional claims of equality among Americans, like ensuring minorities are not deprived of a fundamental right to vote, the conservative justices in Shelby were much more interested in equality among the states. As they put, citing Northwest, a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty. Over a hundred years ago, this Court explained that our Nation ‘was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority.’ Indeed, ‘the constitutional equality of the States is essential to the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic was organized.’”

    “The Voting Rights Act sharply departs from these basic principles,” Roberts wrote. “It suspends ‘all changes to state election law – however innocuous – until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D.C.”

    The conservative bloc was also incredibly confident that voter discrimination in the covered jurisdictions, mostly in the South, is a thing of the past. The majority pointed to an increase in minority registration and turnout.

    While voter discrimination allegedly subsided, Congress made the VRA more stringent and its formula for determining covered jurisdictions remained static, the majority groused. “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Roberts wrote.

    When Congress reauthorized the VRA in 1996, which it did overwhelmingly, it should have altered its coverage formula, Roberts argued. “It instead reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day,” he said.

    Roberts also claimed that the majority was carefully invalidating a provision of the VRA, and maintained the Court was providing “no holding” on Section 5. Instead Roberts said Congress could create a new formula.

    The dissent, lodged by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, however, found that the majority had usurped a job for Congress, and in a rather sloppy manner. (Congress, Ginsburg wrote, should be given deference in its constitutional authority to create appropriate legislation to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments.)

  • June 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

    June is every Supreme Court watcher's favorite time of year. There are always several important, potentially landmark, rulings to be handed down. This year, there are four major cases sure to make headlines: Fisher v. University of Texas on the constitutionality of race-based admission preferences; Shelby County v. Holder on the continued viability of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act; U.S. v. Windsor on the Defense of Marriage Act; and Hollingsworth v. Perry on California's ban on same-sex marriage. While no one knows exactly how the Court will rule on these controversies -- and last term's Obamacare decision reminds us that surprises are always possible -- there seems to be a good chance they will follow a distinctive pattern.

    The conservative justices will be bold and assertive, while the liberal justices will be hesitant and incremental.

    Instead of constrained, the conservative justices appear ready to declare an end to a half-century of law providing benefits for racial minorities who've suffered a long history of discrimination. In the Voting Rights Act case, the five most conservative justices on the Court -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito -- signaled their willingness to strike down or effectively nullify one of the most important and effective civil rights laws ever enacted. While other parts of the Voting Rights Act will remain intact, voiding Section 5, which requires pre-clearance of changes to voting rules by jurisdictions with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting, will be a severe blow to civil rights. Section 5 is a valuable prophylactic rule that does far more to prevent discrimination than the VRA's other central provision, Section 2, which directly outlaws discriminatory voting practices. Section 2 is an ex-post remedy and requires the challenger to satisfy a difficult burden of proof to win. Section 5 stopped the discrimination before it could occur. While the conservative wing of the Court may stop short of invalidating Section 5 entirely, they might just declare unconstitutional the formula used to determine which jurisdictions are covered. That would seem to be a narrow, incremental ruling but it would have the same practical result as invalidating Section 5. Given the growingly fierce GOP opposition to Section 5 and the general inability of Congress to pass anything of significance, there's almost no chance Congress will adopt a new formula.  Section 5 might remain "on the books" but it would be essentially a dead-letter.

  • June 12, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Forty-six years ago the U.S. Supreme Court in a bold move for equality invalidated state laws banning interracial marriage.

    The case, Loving v. Virginia, centered on a Virginia law barring marriages between people of different races, but its outcome was sweeping, leaving similar laws constitutionally suspect. The law was challenged as a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses. It involved an interracial couple, residents of Virginia, who married in the District of Columbia, which did not have a racist ban on marriage. When Mildred Jeter, an African-American woman, and Richard Loving, white, returned to Virgina they were eventually charged with and convicted of violating the law.

    The couple challenged the conviction, lost in the lower courts and the Supreme Court took the case for review.

    Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that Virginia was one of 16 states that prohibited such marriages. “Penalties for miscegenation arose as an incident to slavery, and have been common in Virginia since the colonial period.”

    The Warren majority, however, concluded that such laws could not comport with the Constitution’s promise of equality and due process under the law.

    “There can be no question but that Virginia’s miscegenation statutes rest solely upon distinctions drawn according to race,” Warren wrote. “The Statutes proscribe generally accepted conduct if engaged in by members of different races. Over the years, this Court has consistently repudiated '[d]istinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry’ as being ‘odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.’ At the very least, the Equal Protection Clause demands that racial classifications, especially suspect in criminal statutes, be subject to the ‘most rigid scrutiny,’ and, if they are ever to be upheld, they must be shown to be necessary to the accomplishment of some permissible state objective, independent of the racial discrimination which it was the object of the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate.”

    Warren continued, “There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification.”