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Supreme Court acts in campaign finance and libel cases

The Supreme Court on Monday returned a challenge to Alaska’s limits on campaign contributions to a lower court, suggesting that the limits were too low. The court also turned away appeals from defendants in a libel suit over climate change and from Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was examined by the podcast “Serial.”
The Supreme Court on Monday returned a challenge to Alaska’s limits on campaign contributions to a lower court, suggesting that the limits were too low. The court also turned away appeals from defendants in a libel suit over climate change and from Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was examined by the podcast “Serial.” J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

The Supreme Court on Monday returned a challenge to Alaska’s limits on campaign contributions to a lower court, suggesting that the limits were too low. The court also turned away appeals from defendants in a libel suit over climate change and from Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was examined by the podcast “Serial.” And the justices refused to reconsider a ruling on how much authority Congress may delegate to the executive branch.

Alaska allows individuals to contribute no more than $500 to political candidates, one of the lowest limits in the nation. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, upheld the limits notwithstanding a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Randall v. Sorrell, that struck down Vermont’s $400 limit on contributions to candidates for statewide office.

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The Sorrell decision was splintered, but Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s plurality opinion said contribution limits could be so low that they “harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.”

In an unsigned opinion with no noted dissents, the Supreme Court sent the Alaska case back to the 9th Circuit, instructing it to “revisit whether Alaska’s contribution limits are consistent with our First Amendment precedents.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a separate statement, wrote that she did not oppose having the 9th Circuit take another look at the case. But she added that “Alaska’s law does not exhibit certain features found troublesome in Vermont’s law.”

For instance, she wrote, “Alaska has the second-smallest legislature in the country and derives approximately 90 percent of its revenues from one economic sector — the oil and gas industry.” Quoting the trial judge in the case, Ginsburg wrote that “these characteristics make Alaska ‘highly, if not uniquely, vulnerable to corruption in politics and government.’ ”

Proponents of campaign finance regulation had feared that the Supreme Court would use the case, Thompson v. Hebdon, No. 19-122, to consider the constitutionality of all contribution limits. Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a blog post that in taking only a modest step the Supreme Court had provided “a victory for supporters of reasonable campaign finance regulation, even though it was a loss.”

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The court turned away appeals from National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian advocacy group, in a libel suit brought by Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State. Mann contends that the defendants accused him of academic fraud in likening him to Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at the university who was convicted of sexual assault.

“Instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data,” the contested articles said of Mann. The defendants argued that the statement and others critical of Mann’s work were opinions protected by the First Amendment. But lower courts allowed the case to move forward.

As is its custom, the Supreme Court gave no reasons for turning down the appeals in National Review v. Mann, No. 18-1451, and Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Mann, No. 18-1477. The case will now move forward in the trial court.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented from the Supreme Court’s denial of review. “If the court is serious about protecting freedom of expression,” he wrote, “we should grant review.”

Alito wrote that there was reason to question whether juries could be entrusted with deciding questions in libel cases that were “highly technical,” particularly where the “allegedly defamatory speech concerns a political or social issue that arouses intense feelings.”

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“Climate change has staked a place at the very center of this nation’s public discourse,” Alito wrote. “Politicians, journalists, academics, and ordinary Americans discuss and debate various aspects of climate change daily — its causes, extent, urgency, consequences, and the appropriate policies for addressing it. The core purpose of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression is to ensure that all opinions on such issues have a chance to be heard and considered.”

The court turned down without comment an appeal from Syed, who had sought review of a decision by Maryland’s highest court rejecting his request for a new trial.

Syed is serving a life sentence for killing Hae Min Lee, a high school classmate he had dated. The podcast “Serial” drew widespread attention to his case.

Syed argued that his trial lawyer had been ineffective in not calling an alibi witness. Maryland’s highest court, its Court of Appeals, agreed in a 4-3 decision that the lawyer’s work had been deficient but said Syed had not been prejudiced given the other evidence in the case.

The court declined to revisit a splintered decision in June in Gundy v. United States on the fundamental constitutional question of how much authority Congress can delegate to the executive branch. The case had been heard before Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the court, and the 5-3 decision suggested that it was the product of a series of uneasy compromises.

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The decision upheld the constitutionality of part of the 2006 Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which allowed the attorney general to decide how broadly to apply it to people who committed offenses before its enactment. Conservatives wary of such delegations had hoped the court would use the case to limit them.

In the end, Alito cast his vote with the court’s four-member liberal wing to form a majority, but he adopted none of its reasoning. Indeed, he indicated that he would be prepared to vote the other way if the question returned to the court and was heard by a nine-member bench.

In a statement Monday concerning the court’s denial of review in a companion case, Paul v. United States, No. 17-8830, Kavanaugh wrote that the court should consider “in future cases” whether congressional delegations were constitutional where they involve “major policy questions.”