Adam Liptak has a great recap of the just-completed 2009 term:
Chief Justice Roberts took control of his court this year, pushing hard on issues of core concern to him, including campaign finance, gun rights and criminal procedure, even as he found common ground with his colleagues on an array of other issues.
He was in the majority 92 percent of the time, more than any other justice. Last year that distinction went to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is often regarded as the court’s swing vote.
“More than in any other year since he became chief justice, this has truly become the Roberts court,” said Gregory G. Garre, who served as solicitor general in the administration of George W. Bush and is now at Latham & Watkins.
This analysis is absolutely on point. The intellectual underpinning of F1@1F has been my hypothesis, now apparently proven if the NYT analysis is a reliable source, that this term’s docket largely reflected the Chief Justice’s awareness of the Court’s available political capital to achieve conservative gains beside liberal elected branches. The Court primed itself to move the law where they could and to leave for a later day those that would do more damage to the Court’s institutional legitimacy than their worth to the conservative legal movement.
For newer F1@1F readers, please give this post a read.
Most striking since I wrote the piece has been the Chief Justice’s ability to call upon the sort of “restrained activism,” introduced in NAMUDNO at the end of last term when he limited the scope of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 rather than strike it down as many expected. This term, he has employed and endorsed such legislation from the bench so to get the kinds of politically acceptable results to make some of the Court’s pro-business decisions go down a bit easier. Last week, he joined Justice Ginsburg’s Skilling decision to specifically limit and define federal honest services laws rather than strike them down–as urged by Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas–so not to let Jeff Skilling walk free. Yesterday, in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB, the Chief Justice rewrote the Sarbanes-Oxley Act–created in the wake of Skilling’s Enron collapse–to force the Public Company Oversight Accounting Board into his vision of constitutionality rather than strike it down outright.
What we’ve had, as I suggested in the winter, is a Chief Justice that knew–and cared–that the Court had only one huge expenditure available to it, and spent it in Citizens United. The rest of the docket was formed and decided accordingly, with the conservatives taking smaller, more under-the-radar steps while the liberals won what they could.
Whereas Justice Kennedy may be the limiting factor on the hot buttons of abortion and affirmative action, issues as the NYT piece noted were nowhere to be found this term, he’s firmly in the maximalist pro-business camp. And for a Court operating in an economic downturn with Democrats in the political branches all too willing to cast it as the tool of an intemperate Tea Party, the Chief–often joined by Justice Alito–must serve as the prudent captain of his man of war‘s voyage towards economic liberty without crossing the Roosevelt Rubicon.
The Court finished its business today for all but the term’s most high profile cases. Today’s decisions featured multiple heated concurrences and dissents, setting the mood for Monday’s decisions on major federalism, Second Amendment, and church-and-state cases, as well as a very long-awaited patent case that may fundamentally affect that field’s landscape.
Decided today were a trio of cases testing whether “honest services” statutes are unconstitutionally vague. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court in the lead case, Skilling v. United States, defined the scope of the criminal statute to bribery and kickback schemes rather than simply invalidate it. “Skilling swims against our case law’s current,” she wrote, “which requires us, if we can, to construe, not condemn, Congress’ enactments.”
Justice Scalia, writing for Justices Kennedy and Thomas, dissented on this point, preferring instead to strike down the law instead of “strik[ing] a pose of judicial humility.” Mocking the majority, Scalia finally introduced virtual shouting into his opinions, making explicit in all-caps the tone in which we’ve long implicitly understood his dissents were to be delivered:
Since the honest-services doctrine “had its genesis” in bribery prosecutions, and since several cases and counsel for Skilling referred to bribery and kickback schemes as “core” or “paradigm” or “typical” examples, or “[t]he most obvious form,” of honest-services fraud, ante, at 43–44 (internal quotation marks omitted), and since two cases and counsel for the Government say that they formed the “vast majority,” or “most” or at least “[t]he bulk” of honest-services cases, ante, at 43–44 (internal quotation marks omitted), THEREFORE it must be the case that they are all Congress meant by its reference to the honest-services doctrine.
Ginsburg’s opinion additionally determined that the notoriety of Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron CEO, did not deprive him of a fair trial. On this point, Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Stevens and Breyer.
The Court also decided Doe v. Reed today, holding that disclosure requirements for referendum petitions do not generally violate the First Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for an eight-justice majority, refused to strike down Washington State’s Public Records Act on its face, but left open the question of whether the plaintiffs–men and women who signed a petition supporting a ballot referendum to overturn the State’s recognition of benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships–would prevail by challenging the PRA’s constitutionality as specifically applied to their own experiences.
Justice Alito, in a concurrence, emphasized what he saw as the plaintiffs’ “strong argument” in an as-applied challenge, echoing his United States v. Stevens dissent. As evidence, Alito found that “[t]he widespread harassment and intimidation suffered by supporters of California’s Proposition 8 provides strong support for an as-applied exemption in the present case”–an argument that went down in flames with most of the other justices, most notably Justice Scalia, at oral argument.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, registered a concurrence on the other side of the ledger from Alito:
courts presented with an as-applied challenge to a regulation authorizing the disclosure of referendum petitions should be deeply skeptical of any assertion that the Constitution, which embraces political transparency, compels States to conceal the identity of persons who seek to participate in lawmaking through a state-created referendum process.
Justice Stevens, writing for himself and Justice Breyer, took a similar stance in opposition to Alito’s prediction:
For an as-applied chal- lenge to a law such as the PRA to succeed, there would have to be a significant threat of harassment directed at those who sign the petition that cannot be mitigated by law enforcement measures. Moreover, the character of the law challenged in a referendum does not, in itself, affect the analysis. Debates about tax policy and regula- tion of private property can become just as heated as debates about domestic partnerships. And as a general matter, it is very difficult to show that by later disclosing the names of petition signatories, individuals will be less willing to sign petitions. Just as we have in the past, I would demand strong evidence before concluding that an indirect and speculative chain of events imposes a sub-stantial burden on speech.
Concurring in the judgment, Justice Scalia continued to press for “political courage,” as he had at oral argument, by rejecting the very notion that “the First Amendment accords a right to anonymity in the performance of an act with governmental effect.” To prove his point, he noted Kentucky’s and Virginia’s early history of viva voce voting, among other examples from American history. In conclusion, he crescendoes:
Plaintiffs raise concerns that the disclosure of petition signatures may lead to threats and intimidation. Of course nothing prevents the people of Washington from keeping petition signatures secret to avoid that—just as nothing prevented the States from moving to the secret ballot. But there is no constitutional basis for this Court to impose that course upon the States—or to insist (as today’s opinion does) that it can only be avoided by the demonstration of a “sufficiently important governmental interest,” ante, at 7 (internal quotation marks omitted). And it may even be a bad idea to keep petition signatures secret. There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self- governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, cam- paigns anonymously (McIntyre) and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.
Justice Thomas was Doe‘s lone dissenter arguing that disclosure requirements are unconstitutional, a space he similarly occupied in Citizens United‘s less-controversial holding.