Supreme Court Review: Campaign Cash, Controversy In the Supreme Court's recently ended term, a relatively insignificant campaign finance case became a broad-based blockbuster. And while there were fewer split decisions overall, the court seemed to jump without hesitation into controversies.
NPR logo

Supreme Court Review: Campaign Cash, Controversy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Supreme Court Review: Campaign Cash, Controversy


Supreme Court Review: Campaign Cash, Controversy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court issued hundreds of pages of new law in the final days of their last term, which has just come to an end. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg with an overview of the entire term.

NINA TOTENBERG: The hallmark of this year was a decision that transformed a relatively insignificant campaign finance case, which presented a narrow question, into a broad-based blockbuster. By a 5-4 vote, the court's most conservative justices upended understandings about campaign finance law dating back nearly 100 years.

In striking down a key provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the court not only reversed its own past decisions; it struck down laws that, for nearly a century, have barred corporate spending in candidate elections.

The decision was so controversial that President Obama singled it out for opprobrium during his State of the Union address.

BARACK OBAMA: Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.

TOTENBERG: Those remarks, delivered with much of the court in the audience, angered Chief Justice John Roberts. Weeks later, he struck back, calling the occasion a partisan pep rally.

JOHN ROBERTS: The image of having the members of one branch of government, standing up literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering, while the court, according to the requirements of protocol, has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.

TOTENBERG: Roberts has not stopped smarting since. He has a fair amount to smart about. Critics have branded the decision agenda-driven, an example of judicial arrogance in which the court substituted its own judgment for that of Congress. University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, for instance, says that the court never seriously weighed the Congressional findings that corporate campaign spending has a corrupting influence on legislation.

GEOFFREY STONE: They don't want to take seriously, those arguments. They don't believe that they're honest arguments.

TOTENBERG: But Supreme Court advocate Maureen Mahoney doesn't read the Court tea leaves that way.

MAUREEN MAHONEY: They call 'em like they see 'em. Yes, they, you know, held that part of campaign finance was unconstitutional, but that's because they decided it violated the First Amendment.

TOTENBERG: The campaign finance law clash is the most visible - but hardly the only - disagreement the Court had with the president or Congress. Sometimes the votes were close. A five-justice conservative majority invalidated a provision guaranteeing independence to the accounting oversight board set up in the wake of the Enron scandal.

But it was an eight to one vote that struck down a federal law making it a crime to create or sell depictions of animal cruelty. And in another ruling that invalidated a federal law, the court, by a 6-3 vote, struck down most of the statute that punishes public officials and corporate executives for corrupt practices. The court said the statute's language was too vague.

Moving on to state and local laws, the Court took on the question of gun rights, and for the first time, declared that individuals can challenge state and local firearms restrictions as a violation of the right to keep and bear arms.

But the five-justice conservative majority gave little guidance to the lower courts on how to evaluate which gun restrictions are constitutional and which are not. Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger predicts the decision will lead to what he calls a tsunami of challenges to state and local gun laws.

WALTER DELLINGER: It'll be a good while before we know how the Supreme Court is finally going to set those rules.

TOTENBERG: If the line on gun rights was fuzzy, though, it was bright and clear in a major juvenile sentencing case and will affect the laws in some three dozen states. By a six to three vote, the court ruled it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime.

While the justices were deeply split in the major decisions of the term, overall, splits were considerably fewer this year than last. Fifty-six percent of the decisions were either unanimous, or with just one dissent.

At the same time, the court seemed to jump without hesitation into controversies, issuing rulings without even hearing argument in many more cases than usual. The court, without hearing argument, put on hold a public financing system that has been in place in Arizona for 12 years, throwing the state's politics into disarray in the midst of a hotly fought primary campaign.

The justices also injected themselves into a trial about the right of gay couples to marry in California. In an unsigned opinion, the court's five most conservative justices bowed to a plea from gay-rights opponents and nixed a plan approved by the trial judge and the federal appeals court in California to allow limited broadcast of the proceedings.

Indeed, the whole subject of gay rights seemed to provoke a dispute about who is an oppressed minority. Again, Walter Dellinger.

DELLINGER: Gay and lesbian groups take that position. Christians and traditional marriage people take that position. And different justices are falling out somewhat on who they think needs protection from a larger culture.

TOTENBERG: Opponents of gay rights lost two cases in which they contended they were the victimized minority. In one, they objected to public disclosure of the names of petition-signers seeking to get an anti-gay-rights initiative on the ballot. In another, the court rejected an appeal brought by a campus religious group that was denied a state school subsidy because the group refused to admit homosexuals as members.

The five-to-four clash of views in this last case was crystallized in a passionate dissent from Justice Samuel Alito and a majority concurrence from Justice John Paul Stevens. Alito accused the majority of putting political correctness ahead of the right to free speech and association, and Stevens responded that while a free society must tolerate groups that exclude homosexuals - or Jews, or blacks, or women, for that matter - it need not subsidize them.

Just who was the most influential member of the court this term? Certainly Chief Justice Roberts won far more battles than he lost. He was in the majority more than any other justice, 92 percent of the time. And he achieved his goal of more consensus.

Justice Anthony Kennedy remained a pivotal vote, as Supreme Court advocate and law school instructor Tom Goldstein observes.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: Even if you didn't need Justice Kennedy's vote to win every case this term, you did seem to need his vote to do something really big and important. He's the one who drives the biggest jurisprudential changes in the law.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Justice Kennedy wrote both the campaign finance decision and the juvenile life terms case. Conversely, without his vote, a number of conservative efforts to do big things fizzled.

Finally, this term marked the last for the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, who, over his 34-year tenure, was a forceful and beloved member of the court, and an astute coalition builder. Appointed by President Ford, he was the last moderate Republican appointee remaining after the retirements of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and David Souter.

On a conservative court, though, he was viewed as the most liberal justice, with the three Democratic appointees actually slightly to his right.

Again, Tom Goldstein.

GOLDSTEIN: The left on the court is basically hanging on by its fingernails. They're not really liberal, and they don't have the votes.

TOTENBERG: The addition of a Justice Elena Kagan will not change that, even if she's as liberal as her Republican critics fear.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.