The media spent much of last week obsessing over Justice Samuel Alito’s injudicious show of disapproval during the State of the Union. They went a bit overboard to be sure, but were it not for that, millions of Americans may have missed the Citizens United ruling entirely.
Citizens United, as you probably know, opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending. The 5-4 decision overturned a century of precedent and was made possible by Justice Alito — President Bush’s nominee to replace moderate Sandra Day O’Connor.
Sorely absent from last week’s coverage was how far Alito’s actions on the bench have departed from his words as a nominee. With that in mind I’ve pulled some relevant clips from the confirmation hearing.
Alito praised the principle of stare decisis (respect for precedent) throughout his hearing but hasn’t let it prevent him back brashly overruling longstanding decisions. Here, in conversaton with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), he argued that the court should take limited actions and use its ability to overrule precedent sparingly:
HATCH: Does that mean that the Supreme Court should perhaps be even more cautious, even more self-restrained, since there is no appeal from any errors that they might make?
ALITO: I think that’s a solemn responsibility that they have. When you know that you are the court of last resort, you have to make sure that you get it right. It is not true, in my judgment, that the Supreme Court is free to do anything that it wants. It has to follow the Constitution and it has to follow the laws. Stare decisis, which I was talking about earlier, is an important limitation on what the Supreme Court does. And although the Supreme Court has the power to overrule a prior precedent, it uses that power sparingly, and rightfully so. It should be limited in what it does.
Alito frequently said that his judicial philosophy discourages him from reaching overly broad decisions when a narrower ruling is possible. Yet he and the other conservatives went far out of their way in order to strike down as many restrictions on corporate influence in elections as possible. Here, still speaking to Senator Hatch, Alito praised narrow rulings and noted that court rulings on consitutional grounds often cannot be undone by Congress (indeed, we are coming up against that limitation now with Citizens United):
ALITO: Because a constitutional decision of the Supreme Court has a permanency that a decision on an issue of statutory interpretation doesn’t have. So if a case is decided on statutory grounds, there’s a possibility of Congress amending the statute to correct the decision if it’s perceived that the decision is incorrect or it’s producing undesirable results. I think that my philosophy of the way I approached issues is to try to make sure that I get right what I decide. And that counsels in favor of not trying to do too much, not trying to decide questions that are too broad, not trying to decide questions that don’t have to be decided, and not going to broader grounds for a decision when a narrower ground is available.
Alito also made a good show of deference to the elected branches of government, arguing that the role of a judge is to interpret the law, not make public policy. He clearly disregarded these remarks to Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) when he joined with four other judges to strike down decades of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President:
SESSIONS: But we really want the court to be more modest and to draw back from some of its intervention and policy issues that are causing much angst around the country. You want to comment on that? Otherwise, Mr. Chairman, I would yield my time.
ALITO: Well, Senator, I think your policy views are much more legitimate than the policy views of the judiciary because members of Congress are elected for the purpose of formulating and implementing public policy and members of the judiciary are appointed for the purpose of interpreting and applying the law.