March 1, 2006

The exacting new Chief Justice.

Here's Linda Greenhouse's account of the oral argument in Randall v. Sorrell, the Vermont campaign spending case. She highlights the incisive style of the new Chief Justice:
The chief justice challenged the attorney general's assertion that money was a corrupting influence on Vermont's political system, the state's main rationale for its law. "How many prosecutions for political corruption have you brought?" he asked the state official.

"Not any," Mr. Sorrell replied.

"Do you think corruption in Vermont is a serious problem?"

"It is," the attorney general replied, noting that polls showed that most state residents thought corporations and wealthy individuals exerted an undue influence in the state.

The chief justice persisted. "Would you describe your state as clean or corrupt?" he asked.

"We have got a problem in Vermont," Mr. Sorrell repeated.

The chief justice pressed further. If voters think "someone has been bought," he said, "I assume they act accordingly" at the next election and throw the incumbent out.

He also challenged a line from the attorney general's 50-page brief, an assertion that donations from special-interest groups "often determine what positions candidates and officials take on issues." Could the attorney general provide an example of such an issue, Chief Justice Roberts asked. Mr. Sorrell could not, eventually conceding that "influence" would have been a better word than "determine."
Everyone is on notice to take extreme care with language usage when writing a brief for the Supreme Court. You might be forced to expend a large chunk of your time at oral argument defending a single word choice buried on page 50. And if you assert that X causes Y, you'd better have some concrete examples to back that up. I love John Roberts's insistence on the highest standards at oral argument.

10 comments:

ShadyCharacter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ShadyCharacter said...

Isn't it just as likely that special interest groups provide money to candidates because they ALREADY hold positions or ideological predispositions favorable to the interest group?

[Sorry, typo in that first post!]

Wade_Garrett said...

The new Chief Justice is so CRISP!

Abraham said...

Exactly. Correlation is not causation. Given two correlated observations, x and y, there are at least four possibilities: x caused y, y caused x, z caused both x and y, or coincidence.

brylin said...

It seems there may be 5 votes (Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito) for eliminating limits on both contributions and expenditures.

This would be big news, potentially overruling both McConnell v. FEC (McCain-Feingold) and the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo.

jeff said...

You've got to love it when the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court tells off a state AG - by telling him that if he's telling the truth about corruption in the state government, then he's obviously not doing his job in prosecuting it.

bearbee said...

"..withering cross-examination.."
Wow..... Did Mr. Sorrell suddenly curl up and shrivel like the Wicked Witch of West screaming......."I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!"?

Nigel Kearney said...

It's good but I'm not clear on the process for overturning McDonnell or Buckley.

Does a candidate have to deliberately overspend, risking prison and other sanctions, in order for there to be a dispute that can then be litigated?

Surely they would want a very high likelihood of success before doing that.

AJ Lynch said...

It is nice to see the clear and incisive questions. No BS - just the facts [Maam sorta like the old TV show Dragnet's Joe Friday).

bearbee said...

Oyez has a list of John Roberts audios of cases he argued before the Supreme Court. I listened to Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993) having to do with the Eight Amendment and a prisoners complaint of being exposed to cigarette smoke.

The Nevada Attorney General appeared ill-prepared - lot of silent time in responding to questions. The Justices seem to feed her answers. She requested the balance of her time about 2/3 through and John Roberts was called. What a contrast. He was top of it. Even got a laugh when responding to a question on asbestos, he expressed that unlike smoking there is no personal preference in which restaurants would ask if patrons wished seating in asbestos or non-asbestos areas.