Tuesday, June 27, 2006

No doubt you awoke today thinking about stare decisis

I won't linger long on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling yesterday that, among other things, upheld the opinion that it's constitutional to bar candidates from collecting unlimited amounts of campaign money. I know, your eyes are already getting heavy. That's why I won't linger. Not even Ambien can compete with the campaign-finance issue as a sleep inducer.

So I'll get to the point, which I think is pertinent: This ruling, in a Vermont campaign-finance case, suggests that the "Roberts Court" is not likely to be radically conservative, as feared by Bush administration critics. At least not on the basis of its behavior in this particular case.

The Bush critics' concern, last autumn, was that the new chief justice, John Roberts, would seek to sweep away durable court precedents (the principle of stare decisis) that stood in the way of a sweeping conservative ideology. One such precedent, of course, is Roe v. Wade. But another is Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 high court ruling which established the aforementioned principle that a ceiling can be imposed on campaign contributions without violating the First Amendment rights of candidates and parties to exercise their free expression.

Reformers have long viewed Buckley as a bulwark against runaway campaign largesse -- while libertarian conservatives have long viewed it as a bar to unfettered expression, an obstacle that has prevented candidates and parties from raising as much money as they like. These conservatives (Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are in this camp) don't think there should be any limits.

But another strain of conservatism is all about respecting precedent. That's what Roberts did yesterday. He signed on to an opinion written by Clinton appointee Stephen Breyer, who wrote that respect for precedent "avoids the instability and unfairness that accompany disruption of settled legal expectations," and that "iteration and reiteration over a long period of time" strengthen a particular precedent -- a reference to the fact that Buckley was upheld in a seperate case a few years ago.

Reformers in Washington were happy yesterday (or purporting to be). One of the most prominent, Fred Wertheimer, told the Washington Post that the court "has not disturbed the constitutional doctrine under which we've been winning cases for years. It's a status quo opinion. It preserves the decision upholding...prohibitions on corporate and labor union contributions...."

On the other hand (and, with high court rulings, there's always the other hand), the supremes made it clear that Buckley was probably wrong to impose any limits on campaign spending. And while Bush's other appointee, Samuel Alito, said the Vermont case didn't directly challenge Buckley, which therefore meant that the court had no need to sweep it away or even address it, some court-watchers suspect that Alito might have been inviting a direct challenge. And there were actually three separate opinions that seemed to constitute a majority. It's rulings like this that help keep the court-watchdog groups in business.

Are you mesmerized yet? If not, try one of these:
1. The Mets come to Fenway tonight for a three-game showdown with the Red Sox, with Pedro toeing the slab tomorrow.
2. The buzz on the new Superman movie is great.
3. Neil Young's aging-baby-boomer concert video is out on DVD.
4. Senate Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska has a new re-election campaign ad, featuring fulsome praise for his job performance from...President Bush.

Yeah, the real eye-opener is #4.