Court Rules on Campaign Spending, Death Penalty

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A divided U.S. Supreme Court rules on cases involving campaign-finance reform and the death penalty. Justices rejected a Vermont law that limited how much money a candidate can raise or spend. They upheld a Kansas law mandating a death sentence if evidence for and against the punishment appear equal. Madeleine Brand speaks with Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick about the latest rulings.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up: NPR's Ted Koppel...

BRAND: NPR?

CHADWICK: They're all scrambling to get here. Anyway, Ted is traveling through the Middle East, he's assessing political conditions. We'll have his report from Jordan in a few minutes.

BRAND: But first, this is the last week of the current Supreme Court term, and that means lots of major rulings. We have several today, and joining us to sort through them is Dahlia Lithwick. She's legal analyst for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY. And Dahlia, among the key decisions today, there were three cases from Vermont, and those were about the state's campaign finance law. What where the issues there?

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Analyst, Slate Magazine): Essentially, this was three different consolidated cases. They were all challenging. Vermont has what's known as a sort of most restrictive campaign finance law in the nation. And so these were challenges to that law. And the court basically decided by a 6-3 margin that Vermont law is unconstitutional.

I want to be clear that they had an opportunity to overrule Buckley versus Vallejo, which is the sort of landmark campaign finance case today. They choose not to do - they limited themselves to just saying the Vermont law, as it stands right now, is just too restrictive and so it needed to be struck down.

BRAND: And what did they find was unconstitutional about it?

Ms. LITHWICK: They said that the limits on campaign contributions, on campaign spending, were simply too strict. They burdened too many First Amendment interests, to quote Justice Breyer, they're, quote, "disproportionately severe." And so we don't have a good sense of going forward what is going to be an unconstitutional campaign finance law. All we know is that the one in Vermont crosses that line.

BRAND: And another case that the Court dealt with today was in Kansas, and it dealt with the death penalty. Tell us about that ruling.

Ms. LITHWICK: The Kansas death penalty statute, like many others in many other states, essentially asks juries to weigh these aggravating factors against mitigating factors. Aggravating factors are things like, was it a particularly cruel or heinous murder? Did they do it for money? Mitigating factors are things like was the person abused as child? Juries are supposed to weigh them against each other. And then if one side outweighs the other, you either give the death penalty if the aggravators outweigh, no death penalty if the mitigators outweigh.

The Kansas Supreme Court had announced that in cases where the jury finds the factors in balance - in other words what they called an equipoise, the aggravators and the mitigators are in balance - the Kansas Supreme Court said you cannot then sort of default to death penalty. It's not a tie goes to the runner situation. In cases where they're equal, you don't give the death penalty.

The Supreme Court disagreed. And by a 5-4 vote today, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, they said no, it's okay to sort of default to the death penalty when the aggravating and mitigating factors are in balance.

Let me add that the defenders are extremely upset. Notably, Justice David Souter said in dissent today: in light of the insanity of the current capital death penalty system, we know there are so many problems. He said it is, quote, "obtuse by any moral or social measure," end quote, to have a system that sort of defaults to execution in cases when there's doubt in the minds of the jurors.

BRAND: All right. And the court also agreed to hear a major case next term. It involves greenhouse gases, global warming. Tell us about that.

Ms. LITHWICK: This is a major, major case, involving the responsibility of the Bush administration and the EPA under the Bush administration to do something about carbon dioxide emissions. Essentially, this is a case that the Court has now agreed to hear that tests whether the EPA under Bush is obligated to put limits on carbon dioxide emissions under the Federal Clean Air Act.

And this is important, because the Bush administration said we're not going regulate carbon dioxide emissions. In the brief, they call it, quote, "scientifically uncertain, the relationship between these emissions and the global warming." The EPA claims that they just don't have the authority to regulate them. This was a challenge saying, listen, you need to do something. This is a core function of the EPA to do something about global warming.

A lower court was very, very divided on this issue. The Bush administration is fighting it, and the Supreme Court has said now we're going to hear this case and determine this comes under the responsibilities of the EPA to start to do something to regulate these carbon emissions.

BRAND: And Dahlia, as we mentioned at the outset, this is the last week of the term. Which major cases are we still waiting decisions on?

Ms. LITHWICK: We're waiting - and we think that these final decisions will come down Wednesday, they may be Wednesday and one more day this week - but the big one we're waiting for right now is probably Hamdan. That's the case testing the Bush administration's tribunal system that it set up to try the folks that it's holding at Guantanamo. And the other big one is that Texas redistricting case, questioning whether a gerrymander can ever be so politically partisan that it violates the constitution.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She covers the courts for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY. Thank you, Dahlia.

Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure.

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