News

The Supreme Court has shed its liberal leanings

Michael Doyle
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

WASHINGTON - There's seems to be a new Supreme Court in town.

Last week's ruling banning partial-birth abortions, revealed it. Coming up next, campaign reform will further clarify how President Bush's conservative appointments and the departure of former Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have reshaped the Court.

"There's a seismic shift taking place," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. "(The justices) have done nothing to disappoint President Bush."

On Wednesday, the Court returns to a campaign reform battleground last visited in 2004 when O'Connor was still serving on the bench. At that time, the centrist O'Connor was crucial in upholding a campaign reform law that restricted pre-election ads funded by unions and corporations.

Now, Wisconsin Right to Life is challenging those advertising restrictions as an infringement on free speech. Oral arguments Wednesday will give O'Connor's replacement, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., a chance to tip his own hand.

Although some of Alito's conservative allies denounce campaign finance reform efforts that appear to restrict political speech, his own views appear to be a work in progress.

The phrase "campaign finance" only appears once in the 1,598-page transcript of Alito's Senate confirmation hearings in January 2006. The word "abortion," by contrast, appears 152 times.

"I have no idea where Justice Alito stands," said attorney Eric Jaffe, who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the Cato Institute and other groups opposed to ad restrictions, but "even the existence of uncertainty leads to hope."

Already, Alito has shown what new faces can mean on a nine-member court.

Last Wednesday, Alito joined the narrow 5-4 majority upholding a federal ban on partial birth abortions. The decision contrasted with a 2000 case, in which O'Connor supported a 5-4 majority striking down Nebraska's partial birth abortion ban.

Chief Justice John Roberts, Bush's other Supreme Court pick, likewise buttressed last week's majority opinion restricting abortions. Roberts replaced the late conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Strictly in terms of vote counting, that is not as marked a change as the O'Connor-to-Alito shift.

Roberts, though, also stamped last week's abortion ruling by assigning Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy to write the majority opinion. Some Court observers saw in the majority opinion the influence of Roberts, who eschews sweeping philosophical judgments.

"It was very much a tight, narrowly constrained opinion," Aron conceded, "though its effect is enormous."

Notably, Roberts declined to join associate justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas on Wednesday in explicitly calling for the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights opinion to be overturned. Roberts has tried at other times, with some success, to forge common ground.

Of 32 Supreme Court opinions rendered since last October, only six have been decided by the closest 5-4 margin. Nine have been unanimous.

Unanimity is out of the question in the campaign reform case. It is sure to involve a strange-bedfellows cast of characters.

The Alliance for Justice, which denounced the partial-birth abortion ruling, is nonetheless allied with the anti-abortion Wisconsin Right to Life, the American Civil Liberties Union and wildly diverse other interest groups in challenging the campaign advertising restrictions.

Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, unions and corporations cannot use corporate funds to pay for ads targeting specific candidates within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days before a general election.

"Congress (has a) compelling interest in preventing corporations and unions from undermining the integrity of elections through the corrosive and distorting effects of wealth accumulated with the help of the corporate form," Republican Sen. John McCain and reform allies declared in a legal brief opposing the right-to-life group.

In 2004, the Federal Election Commission cited the campaign reform law in blocking ads prepared by Wisconsin Right to Life. The ads urged voters to contact Wisconsin's two Democratic senators and oppose any filibuster of President Bush's judicial nominees.

Although the Supreme Court in 2004 upheld the overall campaign reform law, the Wisconsin case challenges how the law has been applied. It gives the new Court a fresh shot at rethinking the campaign law.

"It is a prized American privilege to speak one's mind, although not always with perfect good taste," Wisconsin Right to Life argued in its legal brief.

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