WASHINGTON — Still wonder exactly why Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and mouthed the words "not true" during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address? He objected to the president's saying the ruling in Citizens United v. FEC "reversed a century of law."
The president touched off a controversy when he broke with tradition — and decorum, his critics said — by criticizing the Court's recent campaign-finance decision in his speech with six justices in attendance and bound by their own tradition of not reacting to what is said. (Justice Antonin Scalia once said he no longer goes to the annual speech because the justices "sit there like bumps on a log" in an otherwise highly partisan atmosphere.)
"With all due deference to the separation of powers," Obama said, "the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections."
It seems clear from Alito's questioning when the Court heard arguments in the case that he was taking issue with the president's assertion that the Court had reversed 100 years of law, rather than with Obama's reference to foreign influence, which also has generated legal debate.
At the September arguments, Alito suggested to attorney Seth Waxman that 20 years was the appropriate time frame, encompassing two high court decisions that upheld limits on corporate spending — as opposed to contributions to candidates — in campaigns.
"Mr. Waxman, all of this talk about 100 years and 50 years is perplexing," Alito said then. "It sounds like the sort of sound bites that you hear on TV. The fact of the matter is that the only cases that are being, that may possibly be reconsidered, are McConnell and Austin. And they don't go back 50 years, and they don't go back 100 years."
In the end, the Court left untouched a 1907 law that bans contributions by corporations to candidates. But in overruling those two decisions, McConnell v. FEC and Austin v. Michigan, the Court did strike down limits on corporations in a law that had been in place since 1947.
News organizations attempting to convey the sweep of the ruling without ignoring these distinctions said the Court's opinion represented a sharp turn away from the a century-long trend toward greater regulation of corporate contributions.