Monthly Archives: January 2010

Alito breaks protocol of State of the Union

The President is wrong about the impact of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision – it is hard to imagine that it will unleash special interest groups, as if their role in our political process could get any worse.

But what was Justice Alito thinking when he shook his head and accused the President of misconstruing the Court opinion?

“Not true,” he mouthed visibly in response to the President as the Democrats sitting around him erupted in applause.

A judge, particularly a life tenured federal judge, knows that he sacrifices a certain amount of his right to freedom of speech when he is elevated to the bench. The place for Alito to express his opinion is in his written opinion, not during a state of the union speech by the President.

Ordinarily the Justices sit silently at the State of the Union as a visible symbol of the Court’s autonomy from the rough and tumble of American politics. That autonomy is fragile and yet is also the source of the legitimacy and power of our Supreme Court. Alito forgot that this evening and thus tore a small hole in that veil of legitimacy.

Perhaps it is time to dust off the requirement that a Justice serves for life only if he engages in “good behavior.”

Above the Law

Corporate speech and democracy

My colleague David Yosifon has an excellent Op-ed piece in the SF Chronicle today making the point that in the wake of the Citizens United US Supreme Court decision that corporations enjoy free speech rights these corporations have increased responsibility to insure that their speech reflects democratic input from all of their constituencies, including employees and shareholders.

I like his analysis because it gets beyond the idea of many on the left that somehow it is just plain wrong to allow corporations, which include unions many of which are organized as non profit corporations, free speech rights. Of course corporate personality has long been well established in American law all the way back to a case from Santa Clara County, in fact, dealing with the umbrella of equal protection spreading to corporations as “legal persons.”

The bottom line is that we live in society not just as individuals but through institutions, including unions, corporations, political parties. The goal should be to democratize fully those institutions rather than curtailing their ability to speak for us in the name of a utopian “individualism.”

As the Court itself held: “Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy—it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people—political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence.”