Even Supreme Court Justices Are Laughing At General Motors Now

Ted Olson
Ted Olson

You know you’re in trouble when you’re openly mocked in the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s what happened to General Motors this morning during oral arguments in a campaign finance case that has nothing to do with the troubled Detroit company.

The joker in question was prominent Republican lawyer Ted Olson, who was arguing on behalf of a fairly obscure conservative group called Citizens United. It doesn’t like campaign finance regulations that limit its ability to show a movie that says nasty things about Hillary Clinton.

At one point, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in attempting to draw a distinction between groups like Citizens United and larger organizations with more financial firepower, invoked General Motors.

“Well,” said Olson without missing a beat. “General Motors may be smaller than the client we are representing.”

As the court’s transcript notes, what follows was:

(Laughter.)

Several of the justices appeared amused at the quip, although Breyer was all business.

“I want to get an answer to the question,”  he said.

UPDATE: Leahy Cites Mukasey In Ogden Battle

Someone in the Senate must be reading Washington Briefs. As mentioned in the previous post, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey didn’t face too much opposition when confirmed by the Senate despite his role in defending a dial-a-porn service. David Ogden, the nominee for deputy attorney general, is having no such luck. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee just brought up the issue in his remarks on the nomination:

As recently as just over one year ago, every Senate Republican voted to confirm Michael Mukasey to be Attorney General of the United States.  That showed no concern that one of his clients, and one of his most significant cases in private practice as identified in the bipartisan Committee questionnaire he filed, was his presentation of Carlin Communications, a company that specialized in what are sometimes called “dial-a-porn” services.  It is more evidence of a double standard.

Double Standards From Republicans Over Obscenity Cases?

Michael MukaseySenate Republicans are currently holding up (though not intending to filibuster) the nominee for deputy attorney general, David Ogden, apparently because some of his clients in private practice are involved in the pornography industry.

Funny that, as when President Bush nominated Michael Mukasey to be attorney general, he named a porn case as one of the 10 most important he litigated during his career.

As I wrote in a Daily Journal story on October 17, 2007:

Attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey recently picked an obscenity case as one of the 10 most important he litigated during his long and distinguished career.
      What social conservatives won’t be pleased to know, as they continue to complain that the Bush administration fails to pursue enough of these cases, is that Mukasey wasn’t the prosecutor.
      Instead, the nominee, whose confirmation hearing before the Senate starts today, was lead counsel for the defendant, Carlin Communications Inc., a company that specialized in “dial-a-porn” services.
      Mukasey won the case, successfully arguing 22 years ago in a Utah federal court that the Reagan administration’s Justice Department failed to establish that his client committed a crime. Mukasey’s victory was upheld on appeal. U.S. v. Carlin Communications Inc., 815 F.2d 1367 (10th Cir. 1987).

At the time, this didn’t seem to arouse any anger on the Republican side.

Justice O’Connor Plays It For Laughs

Sandra Day O'ConnorRetired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had a few laughs with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show earlier this week, reminiscing about her role as the “first cowgirl” on the Supreme Court, as she put it.

Stewart, as might be expected, got the best lines. When O’Connor told him that it was unlikely that the justices would allow oral arguments to be televised, Stewart didn’t seem too concerned.

“I hope it doesn’t [happen],” he said. “Not that I don’t find Judge Judy fascinating.”

Perhaps the most revealing comment was when O’Connor admitted that the justices do talk about the public perception of the court “from time to time.”

Stewart pressed further, asking if the tone of the discussion is along the lines of “you hear those idiots?”

“Aha,” O’Connor replied.

Now we know.

Alito Channels John Lennon

John Lennon, singing
John Lennon, singing

Conservative Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. probably wouldn’t see eye-to-eye with late Beatle John Lennon on too many issues, but that didn’t stop him making a lengthy reference to one of the musician’s songs in a decision issued today.

In a ruling that allows a town in Utah to decide what public monuments – including religious ones – it wants to put in its park, Alito cited the memorial to Lennon in New York’s Central Park. It includes a mosaic spelling out the word “Imagine.”

“Some observers may ‘imagine’ the musical contributions that John Lennon would have made if he had not been killed,” Alito wrote. “Others may think of the lyrics of the Lennon song that obviously inspired the mosaic and may “imagine” a world without religion, countries, possessions, greed or hunger.”

Alito then helpfully included the entire lyrics to the song in a footnote.

Anyway, the point he was getting at is that monuments can be interpreted by different people in many ways. That doesn’t mean that the government endorses every interpretation when it allows a monument to be erected, the justice added.

Perhaps it will be more of a challenge to reference “I Am The Walrus” next time. Goo-goo-ga-joob.

Breyer And The Empty Printer Cartridge

Justice Stephen Breyer shared a dirty secret with the nation today: he doesn’t recycle his old printer cartridges. He also alleged that millions of his fellow Americans also fail to “put it in the right garbage can,” as he put it. Breyer also referred to himself as a “particularly bad customer” for failing to follow the directions on how to dispose of cartridges as outlined by manufacturers like Hewlett Packard.

Okay, so it was a hypothetical argument he was making in an oral argument in an environmental case this morning, but maybe there’s a grain of truth to it too. Who knows?

The case is a dispute over how much companies have to pay for cleaning up a Superfund site if they had a marginal role in causing the pollution. Breyer’s hypothetical came up when he was discussing with the government’s lawyer whether Shell Oil Co. should have to pay for chemical spills that occurred when it was delivering chemicals to the site near Bakersfield, Calif. More specifically, Shell had directed exactly how the chemicals should be handled during the delivery and storage process. So, Breyer suggested, isn’t Shell’s role similar to that of Hewlett Packard when it distributes its ink cartridges?

“How does that differ from you using your printer? There’s an ink cartridge and you replace them after a while, and mine has a little thing attached that says don’t put it in your ordinary garbage bin because it’s dangerous or whatever it is, put in it in this envelope and do something,” Breyer explained. “Now I’m sure that HP makes those and knows that several million people won’t do it. They will throw it in the garbage bin.”

In response, the government lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, avoided getting into his own ink cartridge disposal habits.