Justice Stevens: Supreme Court Likely Regrets Citizens United

May 31, 2012

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens told a Little Rock crowd Wednesday he thinks the US Supreme Court is showing regret over its recent and controversial Citizen’s United decision.

Justice Stevens quoted President Barack Obama’s January 2010 State of the Union address to illustrate his continuing opposition to the high court’s ruling on the controversial Citizens United case.

The President had said the decision, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on political matters, would enable foreign corporations and interests to influence American elections. The 92 year old justice says that characterization is a problem and is right on.

“In that succinct comment, the former professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School made three important and accurate observations about the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Citizens United: it did reverse a century of law; second, it did authorize unlimited election related expenditures by America’s most powerful interests; and, third, the logic of the opinion extends to money spent by foreign entities. That is so because the court placed such heavy emphasis on quote, the premise that the First Amendment generally prohibits the suppression of political speech based on the speaker’s identity,”

Stevens, who wrote the dissenting opinion on Citizens United, says it’s slowly being undone by recent Supreme Court decisions including one case in which two foreign nationals living in New York wanted to make various campaign contributions. They appealed when they weren’t allowed to make their contributions citing Citizens United. The Supreme Court denied their appeal.

Justice Stevens also compared the ruling to time at a republican presidential debate being auctioned to the highest bidder.

“Both the Candidates and the audience would surely have thought the value of the debate to have suffered if the moderators had allocated the time on the basis of the speaker’s wealth or if they had held an auction allowing the most time to the highest bidder. Yet that is essentially what happens during actual campaigns in which rules equalizing campaign expenditures are forbidden.”

Audience member Dale Bumpers, a former Arkansas Governor and Senator was moved to vow to fight the Citizens United ruling.

“You really hit the mark tonight. I have not been able to sleep well since the Citizen’s United decision was rendered. I simply cannot believe it happened. But I promise you that everybody in this audience and most of the people in this country would praise you to no end for the magnificent dissenting opinion you wrote in that decision," Bumpers said. “But the point I want to make is: I’m going to do everything – as long as my short life that remains will allow me – to do everything I can to make certain that decision does not stand. I think it has the greatest danger of destroying the world’s greatest democracy of anything that’s ever happened in this country.”

The justice got a rise from the audience when Little Rock lawyer Bettina Brownstein asked whether the Supreme Court could be trusted to remain above politics following the Bush v. Gore decision of 2000 which effectively decided that year’s presidential election. Steven’s wrote the dissent of that as well.

“After the decision of Bush v. Gore, why should anyone have any faith that the Supreme Court will follow precedent rather than decide based on their ideological or political affiliation?” Brownstein asked.

“Well I think you have to have confidence that the justices will do their best to not make that same mistake again,” Stevens answered.

Joshua Silverstein, a professor at the Bowen School of Law, said after the event, he thinks Justice Stevens is right in his dissent of Citizens United. He says the justice’s outspoken nature is uncommon.

“I thought his speech was excellent, it is not very common for a recently retired Supreme Court Justice to comment so strongly on a recent decision. They’re usually a little more circumspect in a case like this. But, I think the fact he was willing to make such a strident attack on the decision shows how wrong he thinks it is and how important the decision is,” Silverstein said.

Stevens spoke to a crowd of 600 at the Statehouse Convention center. His address was the keynote in a conference held by the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission and was part of the Clinton School of Public Service speaker series.