The combatants in the battle over campaign finance reform can stand down for another day. This morning the Supreme Court did not issue the long-awaited ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which threatens the future of the ban on direct corporate expenditures in campaigns. The Court is expected to issue opinions again on Wednesday, so the respite may be brief.
The court handed down only one decision today, in fact: Smith v. Spisak, a 9-0 defeat for Ohio death row inmate Frank Spisak Jr. The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, rejected federal habeas claims about improper jury instructions and ineffective assistance of counsel, even though the defense lawyer disparaged his own client.
But the highlight of the Court's day may have been a funny -- though momentarily pointed -- exchange between Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. It came during arguments in United States v. Comstock, a test of the federal law that allows for civil commitment beyond the end of a criminal sentence for federal prisoners deemed to be "sexually dangerous."
Scalia was peppering Kagan with hostile questions about where the federal power to hold someone beyond the end of a sentence comes from. Kagan was handling them well, but in one response she began to address Scalia -- who sits next to the chief justice -- as "Chief ..." She quickly corrected herself. "I didn't mean to promote you quite so quickly," she said to Scalia. Amid the laughter that ensued, Roberts said, "Thanks for thinking it was a promotion." Scalia, perhaps hinting that Kagan, often mentioned as the next Supreme Court nominee, was eying his seat, replied to Kagan, "And I'm sure you didn't."
For more on today's oral arguments, and other developments at the Court, check back later at nlj.com.