How Retired Justice David Souter Can Save the U.S. Supreme Court

06/06/2012 07:19 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2012

The reputation of the United States Supreme Court is in trouble. Americans' approval of the Court dropped 15 points from 2009 to 2011, according to a Gallup poll. Faith in the Supreme Court is dropping right along with confidence in government as a whole. Less than 2/3 of Americans say they trust the judicial branch, Gallup says.

And with good reason. Beginning with Bush v. Gore in 2000, the court has issued a series of starkly partisan rulings in favor of conservative and corporate causes.

The decision of the high court that has most inspired outrage and derision in recent years is Citizens United. The Supreme Court rewrote the First Amendment to equate money spent on influencing elections and lobbying elected officials as a form of free speech under the First Amendment. Then the Court granted corporations the same First Amendment rights as humans. This two-fer has unleashed a spree of legalized bribery by corporate America that will reach epic proportions in elections this year. It's also ignited a grassroots firestorm. Where's Our Money, and many other organizations, are backing a Constitutional amendment to restore the primacy of humans to American democracy.

As Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out in his blistering dissent to the majority's opinion in Citizens United, the decision overturns a hundred years of- Supreme Court rulings upholding restrictions on corporate campaign spending. Such a sudden and profound reversal in what the Constitution supposedly means is an offense in itself. It flouts a core principle of the American judiciary, known as "stare decisis," which requires judges to respect the judicial decisions of their predecessors. "Stare decisis" is the basis for public faith in the integrity and honesty of judges and courts.

Perhaps for that reason, the Citizens United decision seems to have inspired several former justices of the Supreme Court to speak out.

In late May, now retired Justice Stevens, in a speech at the University of Arkansas, condemned the majority's opinion in Citizens United as internally inconsistent because it leads inexorably to the conclusion that "the identity of some speakers may provide a legally acceptable basis for restricting speech," something that can't be squared with the text of the First Amendment -- even as interpreted by the Republican majority in that very case.

Stevens also defended President Obama for taking on the Citizens United decision in his State of the Union speech in 2010, right in front of several of the justices. Which may or may not have something to do with why Stevens was at the White House last week to receive the Medal of Freedom. Stevens took the opportunity to again criticize Citizens United.

Another retired justice has also weighed in, perhaps involuntarily. As Jeffrey Toobin reported in the New Yorker two weeks ago, Citizens United started out as relatively modest challenge to a federal campaign finance law. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative fellow travelers on the Court subsequently decided to use the case as an opportunity to rewrite the First Amendment in favor of big corporations. But Justice David Souter, a fiercely independent and revered jurist, objected to this tactic. According to Toobin, Souter, scheduled to retire in June, 2009, "wrote a dissent that aired some of the Court's dirty laundry. By definition, dissents challenge the legal conclusions of the majority, but Souter accused the Chief Justice of violating the Court's own procedures to engineer the result he wanted." Toobin describes Souter's draft dissent as "an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court."

To avoid a published dissent that would have profoundly questioned the integrity of his Court, Chief Justice Roberts set the case for re-argument on June 29, 2009. This highly unusual move kicked the decision over until the next court term. Toobin says that Roberts did this knowing that Souter would be gone by then.

The source for this explosive reporting could be Justice Stevens... or it could be retired Justice Souter himself.

Souter has donated his papers -- including presumably his draft dissent in Citizens United -- to the New Hampshire Historical Society. Unfortunately, he has barred any access to them for fifty years.

We can't wait that long. It's hard to estimate how much damage to American politics will be done between now and 2056. A nation dominated by corporations and mega-wealthy CEOs for the next half-century will look a lot worse than even the corrupt system in effect today.

And the erosion of trust in the integrity of the Supreme Court is something all Americans -- not merely we lawyers devoted to justice -- should be alarmed about. The judicial branch used to be the one branch of government where the average person could take on City Hall or a giant corporation and expect to be treated equally, free of political influences. Lose that option, and what's left for the 99 percent?

Retired justices typically refrain from criticizing their former colleagues. A sense of decorum, and the sanctity of the judicial process, mandates a quiet retirement for most departed members of the Supreme Court. But the integrity of the institution itself is now in question. The rule of law is being supplanted by the political preferences of the appointees on the Court. It won't be long before the monstrous swelling of money in politics spread by Citizens United directly infects the composition of the high court itself. Those who care about the independence of the judicial branch should do everything in their power to save the Supreme Court. This includes justices who have left the Court.

Like everything else in our democracy, exposure is the first step toward healing. Americans deserve to know what is going on behind those closed bronze doors, above which reads the promise, "Equal Justice Under Law."

Justice Souter should permit the immediate release of his original draft dissent in Citizens United.