Theodore Olsen, Sonia Sotomayor,  Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan.

David G. Savage
July 4, 2014

The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. showed again this year that it is playing a long game, writing opinions that move the law in small but steady steps in a conservative direction.

At first glance, many of its decisions appear modest, and the justices themselves downplayed them as narrow and tightly targeted. But they also set the stage for broader rulings, and liberals voiced concern about their long-term impact.

Many rely on well-established rights, such as freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, but extend those rights for the first time to corporations, wealthy donors and conservatives who bristle at what they view as liberal government mandates, from paying union fees to offering birth control to female workers.

Four of the most significant rulings — on campaign finance, public prayer, religious freedom and union fees — yielded the same 5-4 split. They pitted the Republican appointees, Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr., against the dissenting Democratic appointees, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Not all of the rulings were conservative. Roberts spoke for a unanimous court in extending the right to personal privacy to smartphones, and he joined the majority in two rulings that upheld the Obama administration’s environmental regulations limiting air pollution and greenhouse gases.

But on the big issues where justices were divided, Roberts and the conservatives usually held sway.

In April, Roberts spoke for a 5-4 majority that struck down part of the federal election law that limited how much in total a single donor may give to various candidates for Congress and their parties during an election cycle.

By itself, such a decision might not seem dramatic. The Republican National Committee and Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy donor from Alabama, challenged the limit on free-speech grounds. They argued McCutcheon simply wanted to give up to $2,000 to about 28 candidates but was blocked by the aggregate spending limits.

But the decision followed the court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on independent political campaigns.

In his opinion this term, Roberts cast doubt on the remaining limits on campaign donations, saying a wealthy donor has a right to seek influence with an officeholder as long as the two do not make an actual deal.

“The government may not seek to limit the appearance of mere influence or access,” he wrote.

He also noted that “the 1st Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech.”

Election law experts say the opinion threatens to doom remaining campaign-finance laws that seek to limit the power of big money in politics.

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