When John Roberts was being confirmed as Chief Justice in 2005, he likened his role to an umpire in a baseball game:
Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. … I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.
This was his way of invoking a common conservative trope: that “activist liberal judges” had “legislated from the bench” to create laws that were impervious to repeal through the political process. Roberts was pledging to be a different kind of judge, one who applied the law to the facts the way an umpire applies the rulebook’s definition of the strike zone to the pitch he just saw.
The umpire analogy was always suspect. As Justice David Souter pointed out in his 2010 Harvard commencement speech, cases that can be resolved just by reading the text and applying the facts usually don’t make it to the Supreme Court.
Even a moment’s thought is enough to show why it is so unrealistic. The Constitution has a good share of deliberately open-ended guarantees, like rights to due process of law, equal protection of the law, and freedom from unreasonable searches. These provisions cannot be applied like the requirement for 30-year-old senators; they call for more elaborate reasoning to show why very general language applies in some specific cases but not in others, and over time the various examples turn into rules that the Constitution does not mention.
Constitutional values, Souter recognized, often “exist in tension with each other, not in harmony.” Resolving those conflicts in a way that stays as true as possible to the spirit behind the Constitution as a whole … that requires a judge, not an umpire.
Souter was in many ways the model of what conservatives didn’t want to see in George W. Bush’s judicial appointments: Appointed by Bush’s father, Souter had drifted into the Court’s liberal wing, the wing that conservatives accused of making up laws. Roberts was promising not to do that. He would stay objective, rather than drifting into liberal activism.
When the Court’s McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission decision came out earlier this month, we saw just how ironically things have worked out. The decision, written by Roberts and building on the Roberts Court’s earlier decisions in Citizens United and McComish, is one more step in his completely original remaking (or rather, unmaking) of campaign finance law. John Roberts has become arguably the most activist Chief Justice in U.S. history.
When you read McCutcheon, the most striking thing is the way that Roberts is talking to himself. The precedents quoted are almost entirely those of the Roberts Court itself, many written by Chief Justice Roberts.
Moreover, the only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310, 359. The line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights, and the Court must “err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.” Federal Election Comm’n v. Wisconsin Right to Life, 551 U. S. 449, 457 (opinion of ROBERTS, C.J.). Pp. 18–21.
That bright line between quid pro quo corruption (direct bribery, where a campaign contribution is exchanged for a vote or other favor) and the more general buying of influence — and the idea that the Constitution limits Congress to legislate only on the quid pro quo side of that line — is a pure invention of John Roberts. It did not exist anywhere in law or legal tradition before he joined the Supreme Court.
Roberts also cites an older decision, Buckley v Valeo from 1976, but slides over the fact that he is reversing that decision. Buckley was the Court’s response to the post-Watergate rewriting of campaign finance laws. It upheld the part of the law that restricted campaign contributions, but threw out the law’s limits on campaign expenditures. The Court reached this conclusion via an interesting piece of reasoning that Roberts has completely written over: When a candidate spends money on his campaign, he is exercising his freedom of speech, and the government needs a very serious reason to stop him. But when a contributor gives money to a campaign, he is not himself speaking; contributors are exercising their right to free association, which is also a First Amendment right, but one that is not quite so sensitive as the freedom of speech.
In other words, in 1976 money was not speech.
The 1976 Court upheld the exact kind of restriction that McCutcheon throws out: an overall restriction on the amount of money an individual can give to federal campaigns during a two-year election cycle. So McCutcheon is a reversal, though you will struggle hard to find that fact acknowledged in the text. In Supreme Court tradition, reversals are not done lightly. A major reversal like Brown v Board of Education is a historical landmark, and typically happens only as a last resort. (See David Strauss’ book The Living Constitution for an account of all the ways the Court had tried for decades to make sense of “separate but equal” before recognizing in Brown that it just wasn’t going to work.)
If there is one cardinal symptom of judicial activism, reversal-on-a-whim is it. But Roberts does not struggle at all with reversing Buckley, he simply ignores that he’s doing it. And it’s not just Buckley. In Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion, he quotes McConnell v FEC, the last major pre-Roberts campaign finance case, which upheld restrictions on soft money contributions:
Plaintiffs argue that without concrete evidence of an instance in which a federal officeholder has actually switched a vote [in exchange for soft money] . . . , Congress has not shown that there exists real or apparent corruption. . . . [P]laintiffs conceive of corruption too narrowly. Our cases have firmly established that Congress’ legitimate interest extends beyond preventing simple cash-for-votes corruption to curbing ‘undue influence on an officeholder’s judgment, and the appearance of such influence.’
But as Breyer complains, Roberts now quotes Citizens United as if it had reversed McConnell.
Did the Court in Citizens United intend to overrule McConnell? I doubt it, for if it did, the Court or certainly the dissent would have said something about it.
Another major symptom of judicial activism is a judge valuing his own view of reality above that of the legislature. Judges are presumed to be experts in the law. But often a case hangs on not on the law alone, but on facts about the world. Congress can hold months of hearings and require reports from the full apparatus of government, and so is in general better situated to investigate the state of the world than a court is. Within the court system, a district court can spend weeks or months assembling a body of expert testimony, and so higher courts typically defer to a lower court’s findings of fact. In our entire system, no one is more poorly positioned to assess the state of the external world than the Supreme Court.
Non-activist judges realize that.
Lots of reality-based issues enter into campaign finance law: How does corruption really work? How corrupting are various kinds of contributions? How diligently will contributors and political parties look for loopholes in the law? What kinds of legal restrictions are practically enforceable, and which ones require the government to prove intentions that no one can really know? How does the appearance of corruption influence the behavior of voters and the overall health of democracy?
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 was passed after Congress had assembled massive amounts of testimony and evidence. Moreover, congressmen themselves have direct experience with the temptations towards corruption, and significant interactions with the voters. When McCutcheon came before a district court, that court upheld the law in view of the Buckley precedent, before getting to the evidence-gathering part of the trial. Breyer summarizes:
The District Court in this case, holding that Buckley foreclosed McCutcheon’s constitutional challenge to the aggregate limits, granted the Government’s motion to dismiss the complaint prior to a full evidentiary hearing. … If the plurality now believes the District Court was wrong, then why does it not return the case for the further evidentiary development which has not yet taken place?
Why indeed? Is it that Chief Justice Roberts is afraid the facts would get in the way of what he wants to do? Or is he convinced that he already knows everything he needs to know?
Here’s the kind of thing I wish Justice Roberts knew: Last week I was in my home town, where I had dinner with my best friend from grade school. We have argued politics since we were seven, and he is quite conservative today. But we found one issue where we completely agree: No bank should be too big to fail. We agreed that Congress has done practically nothing to fix the financial system after the meltdown of 2008, and neither of us was optimistic that it would.
Why not? Not because the People want banks to be too big to fail. Between the two of us, I believe we represent a fairly broad public consensus on the issue. And not because bankers are delivering sacks of cash to congressmen in quid pro quo exchange for their votes. But the broader influence of big money in politics — the kind that Justice Roberts has placed beyond legal remedy — makes the too-big-to-fail issue unapproachable. Neither I nor my friend is actively pushing for Wall Street reform because … well, what’s the point?
That’s corruption of the political process undermining democracy. And Chief Justice Roberts has decreed that nothing can be done about it.