Jeffrey Toobin on Citizens United

The latest New Yorker has an extensive excerpt of Jeffrey Toobin’s forthcoming book, The Oath: The Obama White House vs. the Supreme Court, focusing on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The story, “Money Unlimited: How Chief Justice John Roberts orchestrated the Citizens United decision,” is everything you’d expect from a Toobin piece. It’s engaging and informative, with exclusive behind-the-scenes reporting of how the decision came to be. This stuff is catnip for court watchers. Yet the article also contains plenty of subtle (and not-so-subtle) spin in service of Toobin’s broader narrative of an out-of-control conservative court. As a consequence, Toobin paints a somewhat misleading picture of the case and the Court.

The heart of Toobin’s article tells the story of how Citizens United metastasized from a narrow case about the application of federal campaign finance law to an obscure conservative documentary to a significant decision vindicating the First Amendment rights of corporations. As Toobin tells the tale, after the case was first argued Chief Justice Roberts drafted a narrow opinion that would have held for Citizens United on statutory grounds, but leaving the statutory regime intact. The vote would still have been 5-4, but it would have been a far less significant case. Justice Kennedy was not happy with this result, however, and authored a concurrence calling for a broader holding that would rest on First Amendment grounds. Kennedy’s concurrence apparently swayed enough of the court’s conservatives that Roberts initially acquiesced. Such a broad ruling would be improper, the court’s liberals complained, as the broader First Amendment questions had not been briefed and were not properly before the Court. Yet as there was no interest in a narrower holding, the Court ordered a reargument with supplemental briefing that would place the First Amendment question front and center.

Toobin dwells on Justice Stevens’ complaint that the Court’s broad holding in Citizens United was unnecesary, as the Court could have held for the petitioners on narrower, statutory grounds. Yet as Toobin’s own reporting confirms, no one other than Chief Justice Roberts had any interest in resolving the case on such grounds. Even when the case was first argued, not a single liberal justice was prepared to side with Citizens United, in no small part because the statutory argument was so weak.

Toobin criticizes the Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart for a concession at the first oral argument that may have sealed the government’s fate.

Since McCain-Feingold forbade the broadcast of “electronic communications” shortly before elections, this was a case about movies and television commercials. What else might the law regulate? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Alito said. Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?”

Yes, Stewart said: “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.”

The Justices leaned forward. It was one thing for the government to regulate television commercials. That had been done for years. But a book? Could the government regulate the content of a book?

“That’s pretty incredible,” Alito responded. “You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?”

“I’m not saying it could be banned,” Stewart replied, trying to recover. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” But clearly Stewart was saying that Citizens United, or any company or nonprofit like it, could not publish a partisan book during a Presidential campaign. . . .

Stewart was wrong. Congress could not ban a book. McCain-Feingold was based on the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.

Yet here it is Toobin who is wrong, not Stewart. The statutory provision at issue was limited to broadcast, cable and satellite communications, and the film at issue was to be shown as a cable on-demand program, but the government never sought to defend the law on the basis that it was limited to electronic media. After all, the point of the was to limit the role of money in campaigns, not limit television advertising. The position the government was defending was that Congress could limit corporate expenditures related to campaigns, not that it could regulate TV. Under this theory, a corporate-funded book with impermissible campaign-related content would receive no more First Amendment protection than a corporate-funded video or film, just as Stewart said. If this is an incredible proposition, that says more about the position the government sought to advance than it does Stewart’s oral argument. Campaign finance activist Fred Wertheimer made the same concession when pressed by the NYT. It’s true that Solicitor General Elena Kagan would back away from this position when it was her turn to argue the case at the second oral argument, but not without first acknowledging that the statute’s language could apply to “full-length books” and that there would, in the government’s view, be no problem with banning corporate-funded pamphlets.

Like many of the decision’s critics, Toobin suggests Citizens United is best seen as the product of the “aggressive conservative judicial activism” of Chief Justice Roberts and the court’s conservative majority.

Citizens United is a distinctive product of the Roberts Court. The decision followed a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the Justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case. The case, too, reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court. It was once liberals who were associated with using the courts to overturn the work of the democratically elected branches of government, but the current Court has matched contempt for Congress with a disdain for many of the Court’s own precedents. When the Court announced its final ruling on Citizens United, on January 21, 2010, the vote was five to four and the majority opinion was written by Anthony Kennedy. Above all, though, the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.

As Toobin tells the tale, Citizens United is emblematic of the current Court’s assault on precedent and the prerogatives of the political branches. It’s a nice story, but it’s not true. “Judicial activism” is a notoriously malleable charge, but if “judicial activism” is shorthand for striking down federal statutes and overturning judicial precedents, the Roberts Court is the least “activist” court of the post-war period. As a New York Times analysis showed, the Roberts Court strikes down statutes and overturns Court precedents at a slower rate than any of is post-war predecessors, and it’s not even close. “Activism” is also a peculiar charge to make about this case, as the dissenting justices were just as reluctant to embrace a narrow statutory holding and were just as willing to overturn precedent as those in the majority. They just sought to move the law in the opposite direction. If Citizens United is supposed to be evidence of unprecedented “activism,” it’s not clear what “activism” means.

The most interesting parts of Toobin’s article are those that disclose how Citizens United was handled inside the Court. This is great stuff, and testament to Toobin’s skill as a reporter, but I still have some misgivings. We don’t know the identities of Toobin’s sources, and some of his claims are difficult to check. His story may reflect how some justices or clerks saw the case, but there may well be another side, and we won’t know until such time as the relevant court documents are released. I also cannot help but wonder whether some of Toobin’s sources, such as former Supreme Court clerks, may have violated their own ethical obligations in disclosing portions of the Court’s internal deliberations. Even if Toobin’s sources were sitting or former justices, there is something unseemly about the selective disclosure of what went on inside the Court on such a recent case.

In any event, the article is still worth reading — as I am sure Toobin’s book will be as well. Some portions will just go down better with a healthy dose of salt.

UPDATE: Tom Goldstein has a similar reaction to Toobin’s narrative about Chief Justice Roberts:

The theme of the piece is that Chief Justice Roberts orchestrated the case’s metamorphosis from a narrow ruling about statutory construction to a much broader constitutional decision with sweeping implications for campaign finance.

I should disclose that I am naturally inclined towards that reading of the history. I think that the Chief Justice is quite conservative and a brilliant tactician, including in undoing significant pieces of the legacy of the Court’s O’Connor era. I also disagree with the Citizens United decision.

But despite that, while the article is a fascinating and full accounting of the case and the background of the Court’s rapid movement to the right, the facts reported by Toobin don’t seem to support his conclusions about the Chief Justice.