FAN 20.3 (First Amendment News) — The Roberts Court & Unanimous First Amendment Judgments

  • Who would have guessed the 9-0 vote in McCullen v. Coakley? Back in January there was this assessment from a veteran Court reporter:

Equally Divided: “Inside the Supreme Court, the questioning was fast and furious, with the justices apparently divided equally, and for the first time in memory, Chief Justice John Roberts asking no questions. The Chief Justice’s silence seemed to indicate that he likely will be the deciding vote in the case.” – Nina Totenberg, Jan. 15, 2014

That Catholic University Law Professor Mark L. Rienzi would have prevailed in his case in defense of the Petitioners seemed likely enough. But unanimous? The vote surely surprised many seasoned Court watchers.

Professor Mark Rienzi

Professor Mark Rienzi

Take note: It was the third time in one Term that the Roberts Court was unanimous in a free speech case, and also the first time that the Court was unanimous in sustaining a First Amendment free expression claim in two cases:

  1. Lane v. Franks (2014) [vote-9-0 on FA issue only, not on qualified immunity]
  2. McCullen v. Coakley (2014)

This is significant because in every other free speech case where there was a unanimous judgment the Court denied the First Amendment claim.  The 9 cases are:

  1. Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic & Institutional Rights (2006) [vote: 8-0]
  2. Davenport v. Washington Educ. Association (2007) [vote: 9-0]
  3. New York State Bd. of Elections v. Lopez Torres (2008) [vote: 9-0]
  4. Pleasant Grove City, UT, et al v. Summum (2009) [vote: 9-0]
  5. Locke v. Karass (2009) [vote: 9-0]
  6. Milavetz, Gallop, & Milavetz v. United States (2010) [vote: 9-0]
  7. Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan (2011) [vote: 9-0]
  8. Reichle v. Howards (2012) [vote: 8-0]
  9. Wood v.Moss (2014) [vote: 9-0] [FA and qualified immunity]

A Princely Move?  

So what gives in McCullen? Not even a whisper of a separate opinion from any of the liberal Justices, especially the female ones. Could it be that the Chief Justice wanted unanimity enough that he stayed his hand in reversing Hill v. Coloradothis to secure four votes from the liberal bloc? Maybe Nina Totenberg was right; they were divided until, that is, the Chief Justice made his “Machiavellian” move. The result: the law is struck down, which pleases the conservatives, though on narrow grounds, which pleases the liberals. No one is really happy, but the judgment is unanimous . . . in an abortion case! 

Meanwhile, Justice Scalia (joined by Justices Kennedy, and Thomas) would have none of it:

Today’s opinion carries forward this Court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents. There is an entirely separate, abridged edition of the First Amendment applicable to speech against abortion. . . . This is an opinion that has Something for Everyone, and the more significant portion continues the onward march of abortion-speech-only jurisprudence. . . .  Just a few months past, the Court found it unnecessary to “parse the differences between . . . two [available] standards” where a statute challenged on First Amend­ment grounds “fail[s] even under the [less demanding] test.” McCutcheon v. Federal Election Comm’n . . . (plurality opinion) What has changed since then? Quite simple: This is an abortion case, and McCutcheon was not. . . . In concluding that the statute is con­ tent based and therefore subject to strict scrutiny, neces­sarily conclude that Hill should be overruled. 

  One more thing: this is another First Amendment majority/plurality opinion by the Chief Justice (that makes 12). In that regard, he leads all other Justices by a wide margin.

NOTE: My next scheduled FAN column will provide detailed information re the Roberts Court’s overall record in First Amendment freedom of expression cases. It will also include facts and figure re the Court’s 1-A work this Term.

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