What Does Citizens United Tell Us About the Roberts Court?

February 18, 2010
The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC is one the Court's most "polarizing," and could signal that Chief Justice John Roberts is not committed to forging unity on the Court with narrow opinions, maintains Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law school professor and Legal Affairs Editor for The New Republic (TNR).

Rosen notes in a column for TNR that in 2006, Chief Justice Roberts said he wanted the justices to produce more unanimity in its decisions and, in particular, show "humility when dealing with the First Amendment." But in Citizens United, Rosen writes, the chief justice "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."

Rosen adds, "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."

Although Rosen writes that he and others, including some of Roberts' colleagues on the high court, initially gave Roberts the "benefit of the doubt" hoping that he would put the "bipartisan legitimacy of the Court above his own ideological agenda," that seemingly widespread benefit started to erode in 2007.

In summer 2007, Rosen asked Justice John Paul Stevens whether Roberts would succeed in leading the Court down a more conciliatory path. "I don't think so," Stevens said. "I just think it takes nine people to do that. I think maybe the first few months we all leaned over backward to try to avoid writing separately."

[image via pbs.org]