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Justices Turn Minor Movie Case Into a Blockbuster

Publication Date: 
January 23, 2010
The New York Times
Adam Liptak

Professor Pamela Karlan, who co-directors the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, offered her perspective on the significance and implications of the High Court's landmark ruling on campaign finance to Adam Liptak at the New York Times, who filed this column:

So much for judicial minimalism.

Thursday’s big campaign finance decision, arguably the most significant of the Roberts court, showed just how bold that court can be. The majority converted a minor and quirky case about a movie almost nobody had seen into a judicial blockbuster.

“Essentially,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the dissenters in the 5-to-4 decision, “five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”


Pamela S. Karlan, a law professor at Stanford, said Thursday’s decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, was a telling indicator of the direction of the court.

“This is a deeply divided court with a strong pro-corporate wing,” Professor Karlan said, pointing also to a 2008 decision slashing the punitive damages award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

That is a big shift, she said, from the sort of conservatism espoused by the Rehnquist court. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, “was not someone who thought corporations had strong rights claims,” Professor Karlan said.