The Supreme Court is about to hear argument in a case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that should put an end to the myth advanced by Chief Justice Roberts at his confirmation hearing that he, as a Justice, is simply serving as an umpire, calling balls and strikes about what the law provides without any intention of influencing the direction of the law.
After hearing oral argument last term, the Court postponed a decision in Citizens United, which involves the FEC’s attempt to treat an anti-Hillary Clinton movie as an impermissible “electioneering communication,” and ordered the parties to submit briefs that address the question of whether regulating corporate expenditures in candidate elections is constitutional. So instead of deciding the case in front of them, those who had been on the losing side in the past have reached out to redecide an issue that had been settled.
Regardless of where you are on the merits of regulating express candidate advocacy by corporations – the issues of campaign finance regulation and the question currently being addressed by the Court are extraordinarily complex and weighty – it seems likely that those formerly in the minority, including Justice Roberts, seeing a change in the make-up of the Court (with Justice Alito replacing Justice O’Connor, who originally helped decide the quesiton), have seized a potential opportunity to re-make the law.
So let’s be clear. Chief Justice Roberts isn’t just calling balls and strikes: he’s actually determining which pitches get thrown.
Judges bring their own legal ideology to the table when they decide cases. It makes a difference whether the next nominee to the Supreme Court understands that the law and the Constitution mandate protections for average Americans against the interests of the more powerful. It makes a difference whether the next nominee to the Supreme Court understands that the law and the Constitution protect important privacy rights. It makes a difference that the next nominee appreciates that the law and the Constitution affect the realities of Americans’ everyday lives. It’s not just balls and strikes. Judicial philosophy matters.