By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman
April 29, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal
The “Trump judiciary” is corrupt, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse claims, and the remedy is to scrutinize parties presenting legal arguments in friend-of-the-court, or amicus, briefs. The proposal wouldn’t make the courts any cleaner, but it would violate the First Amendment. It is also part and parcel of the broader Democrat-driven effort to politicize and intimidate the judiciary.
Amicus briefs are a fixture of litigation, particularly in appellate cases presenting broad and important legal questions. While the parties to a case present their positions in their own briefings, amici inform the courts with additional perspectives and analysis. Typical amicus briefs address the history of a constitutional provision or statute, dive deep into legal doctrine and precedent, or argue about the practical consequences of approaches the court might take. Many are filed by, or on behalf of, legal scholars. At the Supreme Court, the justices often question lawyers on points raised by amici, and they occasionally engage amicus-brief arguments in written opinions.
Where others see public-spirited legal advocacy, Mr. Whitehouse sees a plot. In a 2019 amicus brief of his own, the senator, joined by four Senate Democratic colleagues, denounced amici supporting a gun owner denied the right to transport his firearm as “marionettes controlled by a puppetmaster” as part of a “project” in partnership with the court itself to “thwart gun-safety regulations.” Amicus briefs, the senator asserted in his own, are driving a “pattern of outcomes” in which “corporate and Republican political interests prevailed.”
“The Supreme Court is not well,” the brief concluded ominously. “Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.’ ”
Mr. Whitehouse expanded on the point in a 2020 screed co-authored with Sens. Chuck Schumer and Debbie Stabenow, titled “Captured Courts.” It contends that a “network” centered on the Federalist Society—which doesn’t file amicus briefs or even take positions on cases or issues—is using such briefs “to inject its boundary-pushing theories directly into Supreme Court jurisprudence.”
The senator has introduced legislation, the Assessing Monetary Influence in the Courts of the United States Act, that would require any organization filing three or more amicus briefs a year to register with the government and disclose the identities of those who worked on the brief and of its significant donors, even those who didn’t seek to fund any particular brief. In February Mr. Whitehouse wrote a letter to the Judicial Conference Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, urging it to adopt the same approach through court rules.
Mr. Whitehouse’s claims of corruption are frivolous. It’s not as if there are hundred-dollar bills tucked between the pages of the PDFs. And how exactly are amici supposed to be influencing judges other than by making persuasive legal arguments? The common complaint from the bench is that too many amicus briefs are useless because they merely restate the parties’ arguments or make an empty show of support.
The courts, unlike politicians, decide cases under the law and have to show their work. So while an amicus’s argumentation can be persuasive, its support for one party or the other carries little weight. (Some amicus briefs don’t even take a position on which party should prevail.) If the courts were counting noses, the support of the Chamber of Commerce and a half-dozen other business groups should have swung things for Ford Motor Co. in the big personal-jurisdiction case the Supreme Court decided last month. But Ford lost unanimously. Federal judges, with life tenure, don’t have a campaign on the horizon or a constituency to please.
This isn’t the first time politicians have sought to compel disfavored organizations to disclose their associations. In NAACP v. Alabama (1958), the Supreme Court turned back the state’s demand that the civil-rights organization turn over its membership list. The justices recognized that the First Amendment protects citizens’ right to join together to advance beliefs and ideas and that “privacy in group association” can be essential to such advocacy, “particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.” The court has since consistently subjected disclosure requirements implicating associational rights to “exacting scrutiny,” requiring that disclosure further an important governmental interest like combating fraud or corruption or preserving election integrity.
The courts already require amici to disclose whether a party to the case wrote its briefs or made any contributions intended to fund them, and those requirements further the courts’ interests in preventing parties to a case from using amicus briefs as supplements to their own briefing. By contrast, donors who make general contributions to an organization—whether the Chamber of Commerce or the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund—aren’t putting themselves before the court. Whether an argument presented by an amicus sinks or swims turns on its merit, not who contributed to its filer’s operating expenses. Perversely, Mr. Whitehouse’s proposal would cement into law the opposite presumption, with predictably corrosive consequences for the public’s view of the judiciary and the law.
That is the objective. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and many originalist and textualist judges now serving on courts of appeals, Mr. Whitehouse understands that the policy-driven mode of judging that underpins so many progressive legal victories is on the wane. So he spelled out a new strategy in “Captured Courts”: attack the conservative legal movement and tar the judges who share its principles with made-up claims of corruption. Donor disclosure is the fodder for the attacks.
The damage to Americans’ freedom would be substantial. Organizations advocating on all sides of controversial issues would be forced to publicize their supporters, even ones who may disagree with those particular briefs and positions. They would be targeted for harassment, as practically anyone taking a controversial stand today is, and many would curtail their associations with groups that file amicus briefs.
The endgame, per the senator, is to dry up support for what he regards as “unpopular and self-serving positions.” The First Amendment exists precisely to protect the right to take unpopular positions.
Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.