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This morning the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, the case challenging overall limits on campaign contributions, and already the tea-leaf reading has begun.

The consensus?  The four justices on the liberal wing (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan) favor upholding the law;  Justice Anthony Kennedy is unpredictable; and the four justices on the conservative wing (John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) are in favor of striking down the limits (although Roberts might be looking for a compromise).

From the New York Times:

The justices seemed to divide along familiar ideological lines.

“By having these limits, you are promoting democratic participation,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “Then the little people will count some.”

Justice Antonin Scalia responded, sarcastically, that he assumed “a law that only prohibits the speech of 2 percent of the country is O.K.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who probably holds the crucial vote, indicated that he was inclined to strike down overall limits on contributions to several candidates, but not a separate overall limit on contributions to several political committees.

From Scotusblog:

The Justices who favor limits on campaign donations seemed to believe that the current system is corrupting in favor of the rich, but that they still would like some harder information on just how that happens.  And the Justices who favor the freer flow of money into federal campaigns seemed to think there are enough safeguards against corruption already and that any more will stifle political expression, of the not so rich, too.  But anything like a consensus that could attract five votes eluded both sides.

Read more about the McCutcheon case here.

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On the eve of the First Monday in October, New York magazine released an in-depth Q&A with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in which he holds court on a wide range of personal and judicial views.

Not surprisingly, he reads the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, but not the New York Times or the Washington Post (“shrilly liberal”).

One of his favorite television shows?  Seinfeld, especially the “soup Nazi” episode.

He believes in the Devil, as do most Catholics — and most people — he says.

He suspects that he has friends who are gay.

Here’s Scalia on his evolution as a constitutional originalist (who interprets the Constitution as the framers intended it rather than as an evolving document) and a textualist (who believes that statutes must be ­interpreted based on their words alone):

If a state enacted a law permitting flogging, it is immensely stupid, but it is not unconstitutional. A lot of stuff that’s stupid is not unconstitutional. I gave a talk once where I said they ought to pass out to all federal judges a stamp, and the stamp says—Whack! [Pounds his fist.]—STUPID BUT ­CONSTITUTIONAL. Whack! [Pounds again.] STUPID BUT ­CONSTITUTIONAL! Whack! ­STUPID BUT ­CONSTITUTIONAL … [Laughs.] And then somebody sent me one.

Here he is on the Court’s methods of evaluating discrimination (types of scrutiny):

I am not a fan of different levels of scrutiny. Strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny,blah blah blah blah. That’s just a thumb on the scales.

But there are some intelligent reasons to treat women differently. I don’t think anybody would deny that. And there really is no, virtually no, intelligent reason to treat people differently on the basis of their skin.

And here’s Scalia on why he doesn’t attend the State of the Union:

It’s childish.. . . . But I’m not the only one who didn’t go. John Paul Stevens never went, Bill Rehnquist never went during his later years. Because it is a childish spectacle. And we are trucked in just to give some dignity to the occasion. I mean, there are all these punch lines, and one side jumps up—­Hooray! And they all cheer, and then another punch line, and the others stand up, Hooray! It is juvenile! And we have to sit there like bumps on a log. We can clap if somebody says, “The United States is the greatest country in the world.” Yay! But anything else, we have to look to the chief justice. Gee, is the chief gonna clap? It didn’t used to be that bad.

Read the full interview here.

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Here are some of the important policy matters we’re watching at mid-week:

Wos Watch: Reporters Laura Leslie of WRAL, Joe Neff and Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer have the scoop on the latest wacky hire at the Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, Travis Fain of the Greensboro News & Record has compiled a list of what might be termed Aldona’s Greatest Hits (or Misses).

Greed and inequality watch: There’s another report out panning the so-called “Trans-Pacific Partnership.” According to researcher David Rosnick of the Center for Economic Policy Research, most U.S. workers would actually experience a net negative impact from the proposed trade deal that’s currently under negotiation And, of course, you can learn lots more about this critical but underreported story at next Thursday’s NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon with global trade expert Lori Wallach of the group Public Citizen. Some seats still remain – click here for more info.

Greed and inequality watch – Part II: National Common Cause chairperson and veteran economic justice advocate Robert Reich appears to be garnering quite a bit of well-deserved attention for his new flick: “Inequality for All.” You can watch the official trailer here and an extended interview with Jon Stewart here.  

Knuckleheaded bigot watch: Read More

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The U. S. Supreme Court will open its new term in October with another blockbuster case involving campaign financing.

McCutcheon v. FEC (called “Citizens United II” by some), scheduled for argument on Oct.8, involves a challenge to limits on individual donor contributions.  In 2012, the overall contribution limit for a single donor in the 2012 election cycle was $70,800 to all party committees and $46,200 to all federal candidates.

Conservative Alabama activist Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee want to have lots more money flowing into elections and have asked the Court to overrule years of precedent upholding such limits.

Here’s a little history on the regulation of contributions and a warning on just why this case — even more than Citizens United — is such a threat to democracy,courtesy of  this opinion piece in today’s Politico:

 In the wake of Watergate, Congress in 1974 enacted comprehensive new campaign finance laws that included limits on individual contributions to candidates and an overall limit on the total amount an individual could give to all federal candidates and parties.

The Supreme Court in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo explicitly upheld the constitutionality of the overall contribution limit, as well as the individual contribution limits.

Since then, the Supreme Court has never struck down a federal contribution limit. Instead, the court has relied repeatedly on Buckley to hold that large contributions create opportunities for corruption and therefore can be subject to limits consistent with the First Amendment.

We’ll have more on this and other cases queued for argument in the new term in the coming weeks.

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The Court this morning released decisions in five of the eleven cases still awaiting disposition, and will return with more tomorrow morning and at least one more day after that.

The first decision was Vance v. Ball State, on the “superior liability” rule in sexual harassment cases. In a 5-4 vote, the Court upholds the 11th Circuit.  Justice Samuel Alito writes for the majority, Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the dissent — joined by Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. From scotusblog:

Regarding Vance, the Supreme Court had previously made a distinction between discrimination by “supervisors” and discrimination by mere co-workers. Specifically, a company is automatically liable for any discrimination by a supervisor; it is liable for co-worker discrimination only if the victim complains about it to management and the management does nothing to stop it. So by restricting who counts as a supervisor, the Court has handed employers a victory.

Second was Mutual Pharmaceuticals v. Bartlett,  also written by Justice Alito. In a 5-4 decision reversing the 1st Circuit, the Court holds that design defect claims under state law that turn on the adequacy of a drug’s warnings are preempted by federal law. Justice Breyer dissents, joined by Justice Kagan, and Justice Sotomayor dissents, joined by Justice Ginsburg.

Third was U.S. v. Kebodoeux. In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Breyer, the Court reverses the Fifth Circuit. The case involves the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SONRA), which requires federal sex offenders to register in the States where they live. Here, the defendant was convicted of a sex offense, but had already served his sentence and been discharged when SONRA was enacted. The question in the case was whether Congress had the power to enact SONRA’s registration requirements and apply them to an offender who had already completed his sentence when SONRA was enacted. The Court holds that Congress had that power under the Necessary and Proper Clause.

Affirmative action, in Fisher v. University of Texas, was next.  In a 7-1 opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court reverses the Fifth Circuit on narrow grounds and sends the case back to have the UT affirmative action policy assessed under a strict scrutiny standard.  Justice Kagan was recused. Justice Ginsburg was the lone dissenter.  Justices Scalia and Thomas have concurring opinions.

The final opinion today was UT Southwestern v. NassarIn a 5-4 decision by Justice Kennedy,the Court holds that Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of “but for” causation, not the lesser causation standards stated in the law. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan dissent. In her dissent, Ginsburg takes on the majority in both this case and in  Vance, saying that “both decisions dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended. . . . Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court to correct this Court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII.”