What’s Happening in Citizens United v. FEC? Solving — Eventually — the Mystery of Delayed Cases

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The week is about to end without a ruling from the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, regarding governments’ authority to regulate corporate and labor union spending in elections. Both sides have been anxiously awaiting a decision in the case that was argued last September and could affect big-money expenditures in this fall’s mid-term elections and all future races.

So sure were many campaign experts that the ruling was coming this week that they deluged reporters with notices of planned teleconferences and statements of how significant the decision was likely to be.

I cannot blame anyone for trying to predict the Court, especially when so much is at stake. But having gone through hundreds of once-private documents in judicial archives and seen how eleventh-hour switched-votes play out, I know how many factors can delay a case. A justice whose vote is crucial to the majority could be wavering. There could be an escalation in rhetoric between the majority and dissenting opinions. And those are just the predictable hold-ups.

I can recall numerous cases from my research on Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor of flipped votes detected only after a justice’s private papers became public.

In the 1988 case of Bowen v. Massachusetts, between the federal government and states over Medicaid expenditures, Justice Scalia started with the opinion for the court but lost it when Justice William Brennan reconsidered competing legal rationales. One of the lawyers in the case told me recently that he wouldn’t have known that the outcome had changed if he hadn’t read about the behind-the-scenes maneuverings. Sometimes, there’s enough of a ‘we were robbed’ tone to the dissenting opinion to suspect that a justice changed his or her vote. But often the public opinions give no clue.

In the 1994 Holder v. Hall dispute over the scope of the landmark Voting Rights Act, Scalia started with the majority and the opinion for the Court, but then justices on his side began splintering off. Chief Justice William Rehnquist reassigned the opinion to Anthony Kennedy. That case, by the way, was argued on Oct. 3, 1993 and not decided until June 30, 1994. Could we be waiting for Citizens United until June?

I solved a mystery in the 1989 case of Wyoming v. United States, involving water rights for Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation, while I was doing research on O’Connor. The United States government, as a trustee for the tribes, had successfully contested a Wyoming state policy that voided the water rights. In its appeal to the Court, Wyoming claimed the rights had lapsed when the Indians failed to invoke them for irrigation or other projects. O’Connor was writing an opinion for a five-justice majority that sided with Wyoming and would deny the tribe water rights. As Justice Brennan began a draft of his dissent in the case, he referred to the Bible, “The Court might well have taken as its motto for this case the words of Matthew 25:29: ‘but from him that has not shall be taken even that which he has.’”

 But then suddenly everything changed. In late June, O’Connor sent a note to her fellow justices saying she had discovered her family’s Arizona ranch was named in a similar water-rights lawsuit, and she wanted to disqualify herself from the Wyoming matter. Without O’Connor’s vote, the Court was split 4-4 and the tie vote automatically affirmed the lower-court decision favoring the U.S. government as trustee for the tribes. The Court announced its resolution in one sentence. In private, O’Connor had closed her recusal note, which I first found in the papers of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, with, “The unexpected has become the order of the day this term.” Maybe we’re in for another one of those terms.

When Citizens United finally is handed down, we’ll get some indication of what was happening. And then, years from now, if one of the justices makes his or her papers available – and if any of us are still around to read them – we’ll know much more. Those are big Ifs.

When I asked Justice O’Connor recently about when her archives might be available and if I might find some gems there, she said, “Don’t hold your breath.”

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