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.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.
"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."
March 1, 2006
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: