This post first appeared in Truthout.
You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
But, seeing what
the man will do
no occasion to.
–Humbert Wolf, from The Uncelestial City (1930)
The Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission was not about aggregate limits on individual campaign donations to candidates in federal elections. The case was about what constitutes a bribe, how big that bribe has to be and whether an electoral system can be corrupt even in the absence of a legally demonstrable cash payment to an office holder or candidate for an explicitly specified favor. The Roberts court, or five of its nine members, adopted the misanthrope’s faux-naïve pose in ruling that private money in politics, far from promoting corruption, causes democracy to thrive because, money being speech, the more speech, the freer the politics. Anatole France mocked this kind of legal casuistry by saying, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”
James Fallows has reminded us that during Chief Justice John Roberts’ confirmation hearing, the nominee described his own judicial approach as “Humility. Modesty. Restraint. Deference to precedent. ‘We’re just calling balls and strikes.'” Fallows goes on to say that Roberts is cynical for adopting that pose to get through the hearing. It is true that he is cynical, no doubt in the same way that prostitutes are cynical women, but I don’t think that term quite captures the key quality that makes Roberts decide legal cases the way he does. Nor does his cynicism differentiate him from his jurisprudential clones named Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Kennedy.
There is unquestionably a bit of role playing on the court – Scalia, the opinionated blowhard at your local saloon; Thomas, the total cipher; Alito, the professional Catholic who might have come from the curia at Rome; Kennedy, the guy who purports to be a swing vote when his mind is already made up. Roberts’ role is that of chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He can’t very well clown around in the manner of Scalia, who acts like Bill O’Reilly in judicial robes. The five justices’ bedrock beliefs may well be as identical to one another’s as those of the creepy alien children of Village of the Damned. Roberts is different only insofar as he is the more strategic front man. 
Roberts knows he was appointed to be a Supreme Court justice for one reason: to decide relevant cases on behalf of corporate interests. This explains why he made a political move to salvage the Affordable Care Act: The case was a matter of partisan politics before the court. Business interests were roughly divided on the law – some disliked its mandates and provisions that might drive up their costs, while others saw its potential for allowing them to dump insured employees into pools, or, alternatively to benefit from tax subsidies. Still others may have seen it as a license to mint money. ACA was a costly and convoluted way to insure more people, but Republican hacks saw only one aspect: It was Obama’s initiative, so it must be opposed. Roberts saw it as a political squabble involving the other two branches, but on which there was no unified business position. It was a law whose philosophy had a Republican pedigree – the Heritage Foundation had proposed something like it more than a decade before. If a Republican were president, he might have proposed a similar bill; after all, the president who nominated Roberts engineered the Medicare Prescription Drug Act.
Roberts perceived the deeper dynamic beneath the ideological posturing over ACA, and that is why he had to be the deciding vote of a divided court to save the act. Overturning it would cause millions to question the court’s legitimacy on a matter that was not crucial to business interests. Best to save one’s powder for more relevant fights. That said, the four dissenting votes also had to vote as they did to render the decision subjectively moot in the minds of Republican jihadists, who would continue to fight the act tooth and nail. As it was, Roberts threw a valuable bone to the Republicans by vitiating the Medicaid mandate to the states. This made it harder to implement the law and permitted Republican governors and legislatures to work all manner of mischief.
We now have an algorithm to crack the Enigma Code of the Supreme Court. Once there are five members of the court who accept as self-evidently valid the 19th century concept of “freedom of contract,” other issues become subsidiary. This framework explains hundreds of cases before the court and clarifies the seeming anomalies like ACA. It explains the court’s position in Vance v. Ball State, which made it more difficult to sue employers for harassment, and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which barred remedy for pay discrimination (even Congress subsequently saw fit to redress the bias of the court’s decision). In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the court rejected a class-action suit of women denied raises and promotions. The Roberts court also took the side of corporations against consumers in Mutual Pharmaceutical Company v. Bartlett and AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. The Roberts Court declared unconstitutional a 1988 law that subjected corporate officers to fraud charges if they could be shown to have deprived clients of honest services.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes stated in his dissenting opinion on the 1902 Lochner case, which established as virtual court theology the freedom of contract notion (without government restrictions), from which many subsequent pro-corporation decisions have flowed, the court’s majority was basing its decision on economic ideology rather than constitutional interpretation. Roberts is wise enough to know that and is wise enough to conceal his hand with occasional strategic references to the free speech or free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.
A friend once complained to me about a basketball game in which the referee consistently called fouls on one team where none existed and failed to call fouls on the other team, which blatantly and repeatedly committed them. This being only a high school-level game, I asked him if he thought the referee had taken a cash bribe. “Of course not,” was his answer, “he was just blatantly biased.” “Is that also corruption?” was my response. Sometimes, like Humbert Wolf’s British journalist, judges can be corrupted even in the absence of what Justice Roberts narrowly defines as “quid pro quo corruption.” Fallows recommends that Congress enact a fixed term of office for Supreme Court justices. I think that is a good idea, although not just to obviate senescence on the court. It might also wake up citizens to the whole sorry con game if they were forced to contemplate retired honorable justices giving speeches at $500,000 a pop to corporations eager for enlightenment on the finer points of judicial interpretation.
1. The chief justice, and only he, is empowered to appoint judges to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That power makes him an ex officio operative of the Deep State and invests him with gravitas. As such he cannot behave like a clown or a mental vacuum.
2. The Hobby Lobby case is, on the surface, a complaint by the company that the ACA violates the religious liberties of the company’s management by forcing it to provide policies that include contraception in its employer-provided insurance to employees. If, however, the company’s pension plan invests heavily in contraceptive manufacturers, how on earth did Hobby Lobby get standing to sue? How could the company claim with a straight face that its material interests were targeted and damaged by the ACA? And how do the executives of a for-profit corporation chartered under state laws for a specific commercial purpose get to invest the corporate entity with a religious soul?