Roberts Not Sure Why Justices at State of Union Address
Chief Justice John Roberts says he’s not sure why the Supreme Court still attends the State of the Union address, indicating that perhaps it was time for that tradition to end.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday the scene at President Obama’s State of the Union address was “very troubling” and the annual speech has “degenerated to a political pep rally.”
Obama chided the court, with the justices seated before him in their black robes, for its decision on a campaign finance case.
Responding to a University of Alabama law student’s question, Roberts said anyone was free to criticize the court, and some have an obligation to do so because of their positions. “So I have no problems with that,” he said. “On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum. The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”
Breaking from tradition, Obama criticized the court’s decision that allows corporations and unions to freely spend money to run political ads for or against specific candidates. “With all due deference to the separation of powers the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections,” Obama said in January. Justice Samuel Alito was the only justice to respond at the time, shaking his head and mouthing the words “not true” as Obama continued.
Roberts told the students he wonders whether justices should attend the speeches. “I’m not sure why we’re there,” said Roberts, a Republican nominee who joined the court in 2005.
Justice Antonin Scalia once said he no longer goes to the annual speech because the justices “sit there like bumps on a log” in an otherwise highly partisan atmosphere. Six of the nine justices attended Obama’s address.
Roberts and Scalia are right. It’s not so much that Obama’s dig at the Court was improper but that the nature of the address has gradually evolved over the years into a more partisan, overtly political affair. Perhaps that’s to be expected, since American politics has similarly changed. But it may well be time for the Justices to stop attending, lending the impression that the SOTU is some sort of national unity moment. Ditto, incidentally, the Joint Chiefs.
UPDATE: Via the comments, I see that Glenn Greenwald has an interesting alternative viewpoint:
It’s not actually a unique event of oppression or suffering to have to sit and listen to a speech where someone criticizes you and you can’t respond that very moment (but are able, as Roberts just proved, to respond freely afterward). Even in the State of the Union Address, it’s completely customary for the President to criticize the Congress or the opposition party right to their faces, while members of his party stand and cheer vocally, and — as the reaction to Joe Wilson’s outburst demonstrated — “decorum” dictates that the targets of the criticism sit silently and not respond until later, once the speech is done. That’s how speeches work. Only Supreme Court Justices would depict their being subjected to such a mundane process as an act of grave unfairness (and, of course, Roberts’ comrade, Sam Alito, could not even bring himself to abide by that decorum).
What makes Roberts’ petty, self-absorbed grievance all the more striking is that this is what judges do all the time. It’s the essence of the judicial branch. Federal judges are basically absolute tyrants who rule over their courtroom and those in it with virtually no restraints. They can and do scold, criticize, berate, mock, humiliate and threaten anyone who appears before their little fiefdoms — parties, defendants, lawyers, witnesses, audience members — and not merely “decorum,” but the force of law (in the form of contempt citations or other penalties), compels the target to sit silently and not respond. In fact, lawyers can be, and have been, punished just for publicly criticizing a judge.
The very idea that it’s terrriby wrong, uncouth, and “very troubling” for the President to criticize one of their most significant judicial decisions in a speech while in their majestic presence — not threaten them, or have them arrested, or incite violence against them, but disagree with their conclusions and call for Congressional remedies (as Art. II, Sec. 3 of the Constitution requires) — approaches pathological levels of vanity and entitlement.
All fair points.
But here’s the thing: The president, the Congress, and the Supreme Court are theoretically equals. Judges and those appearing before them are not.
In reality, though, the president and the Justices aren’t equals. The former presents himself as the leader of the country and gets to lecture everyone else. There are no comparable venues where the president comes and sits quietly while judges berate him.
It’s true that presidents criticize Congress in these speeches and outburts such as “You lie!” are considered poor form. But it’s not true that Congress is expected to sit there and take it; they cheer and jeer as a matter of course. The Justices, meanwhile, are supposed to present the illusion of impartiality.
Further, unlike the president and Congress, the Court is not an elected, political institution. They’re supposed to be impartial arbiters separate from politics. That’s a transparent fiction, of course, but one that must be maintained. If the Supreme Court is finally revealed to be nothing more than a band of partisans, their authority will vanish.
Finally, Roberts isn’t arguing that the Justices should get to shout “You lie!” when they’re insulted. He’s merely questioning whether they should attend political speeches where they’ll be scolded.
Greenwald has an interesting take on this. As he points out, what Roberts is expected to do — listen to a speech and just take it — is rather analogous to what judges such as himself expect others to do in front of them on a daily basis.
Maybe if we can’t get back to what the State of the Union speech was intended for, then we should stop doing it.
The lowering of the standards of decorum mirror what has happened in the practice of law. This is what comes when zealous advocacy is interpreted as putting any other values aside.
I call BS. If it was being given by a President he liked, Roberts would be right there on the front row cheering.
And how exactly does one know one will be scolded beforehand? No, the problem is that the SOTU is a political speech, made largely _to_ politicians. From his own recent statements, I think Roberts wishes he was (or maybe thinks he _is_) a politician, rather than a SC Justice. He needs to pick one role and drop the other.
Greenwald uses a weird example to make his point. The attorney got sanctioned by the professional body regulating attorneys and the judge got sanctioned by the professional body regulating judges (because the judge engaged in “conduct which was arrogant, discourteous, and impatient to the lawyers appearing before her and others. . . . She acted in a manner that erodes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”)
So, no judges do not rule over their courtrooms without restraint. The courts are fuddy-duddies for a certain type of decorum that they believe aids conflict-resolution. The State of the Union in this day and age isn’t, so the justices should stay away.
I’d have no problems if the Supreme Court didn’t show up to these speeches. I think they’re mostly there to show national solidarity, but if that’s too big a burden, maybe they should just stay home. (Besides, attendance isn’t mandatory at these things, is it? Doesn’t Scalia always skip them?)
That way, when the president says something they don’t like, they can boo and hiss at their TV with all the lack of decorum they can muster and not only will no one know, no one will care.
Legion has it right. Roberts just doesn’t like being called out in public. Boo hoo.
I agree that one purpose of the State of the Union speech is to supposedly show a moment of national solidarity. That is why everyone including the President is supposed to be on their best behavior and follow a certain amount of decorum. Since even the President lacked decorum then maybe all the Justices and the opposing party should not attend. Shot do away with it totally.
The President and his supporter don’t like being called out in public. Boo hoo. It cuts both way.
I posted this at Volokh, I am glad this topic gets soem attention here:
Who cares whether Roberts can handle criticism? If he does not want to attend the SOTU so be it. The real issue here is the Citizen’s decision. I vehemently disagree the outcome but I undertstand the legal undepinning. Dredd Scott was similarly decided. There was text that supported the actual decision (the three fifth compromise is proof enough that the constitution did not regard black as full citizens). But the ramifications were greater than the decison; the same for Citizens. At the current rate, in twenty years, 90% of all campaign expenditures will be corporate driven. To be sure, in my view, corporate speech is being subsidized by the general population due to corporate tax laws. Once we reach this state, Citizens will be reviled as Dredd is today. Would it not have been great if some president had chasticed the members of the Supreme Court then? I am glad I witnessed President Obama SOTU. And as I as I say, if Roberts can’t take it, so be it.
Maybe, the court should get equal time after the State of the Union to discuss their disagreements with the President’s interpretation of the law of the case?
Wayne, I disagree with you that the president lacked decorum in this particular instance. I won’t deny that what he said was controversial, but he wasn’t being impolite when he said it.
Nor was he out of bounds. No one in this country agrees with the Supreme Court on everything. Indeed, most of us (all of us?) believe the Court gets things wrong from time to time, so I’m not shocked that the president talked about where he though they went wrong in his State of the Union speech. Many presidents have aired their disagreements with the Court in the past, and I think they should be able to without being accused of being rude.
If Alito can’t bear that kind of criticism with a stiff upper lip, he should just stay home. Of course, he can sit there and mug and mutter things under his breath for all the cameras to see. That’s fine.
Just don’t be surprised when people think he’s a thin-skinned jerk.
If Chief Justice Roberts doesn’t like being criticized for making activist, stupid, blatantly partisan decisions; perhaps he should consider not making activist, stupid, blatantly partisan decisions. Just another WATB.
Had to refresh my memory with the video of Alito storming the podium, kicking it over and loudly denouncing the President for his baseless accusations.
Wait. Is it possible that I am misremembering this? Is everyone so thin-skinned on behalf of the President that shaking one’s head in disapproval and silently mouthing words of disapprobation are now tantamount to sedition? Should the President (who touts himself as a law professor) be able to blatantly lie to the faces of a co-equal branch without being called on it? Well, he does it to all of us every damn day.
The people as a whole are better informed due to Alito’s intemperate outburst. Due to the furor over his outrage the ruling was better explained. And, once again, (much like in his confirmation) Alito looked better than Obama. Perhaps the President can learn from this experience. Learn not to be a pissy little moan-er all the time. Getting a touch weary of this “I don’t like it, therefore it is the fault of my enemy” schtick.
SCOTUS ain’t the enemy, big guy. The unemployment rate is. Might want to focus on that instead of health insurance.
Wait, you say that you did? My mistake. Carry on.
You don’t see a bit of a difference between Obama respectfully disagreeing with a court decision and some jackass from South Carolina yelling, “You lie?
“I call BS. If it was being given by a President he liked, Roberts would be right there on the front row cheering.”
And I call BS on your BS. Please provide an example where a SC Justice was in the front row cheering ANY presidents speech. This is all pretty simple. He is saying that the SC has to sit there and give the appearance of impartiality while one party stands on their feet and cheers while the president lectures them. Knowing that, its pretty cowardly when the president and congress do that.
When, exactly did Obama give the constitutional reason that case should have been decided another way? Never. His argument was essentially it isn’t fair that corporations can contribute to political campaigns. Fair or not fair is not a legitimate argument at the SC level. What is constitutional is. You would think he would know that.
One important point here: Obama was factually wrong in what he said about the case in question. The ruling did not pertain to restrictions on foreign corporations.
It is entirely one thing for a President to say he disagrees with a ruling. It is entirely another to mis-represent the ruling.
In the words of Buckaroo Banzai, “Yes to the first, no to the second.”
pablo panedero, you are correct that the President was factually incorrect in his description of the ruling, but I believe Alito shook his head to the first misstatement, that the Supreme Court reversed a century of law the previous week. Untrue. I’m wondering if even the generals would have shaken their heads in disbelief if Obama had said that we are not at war in Afghanistan; we’ve never been at war in Afghanistan.
“Roberts just doesn’t like being called out in public.”
“[Justices] are able, as Roberts just proved, to respond freely afterward”
Ummm, the SOTU was delivered over two months ago. If Chief Justice Roberts really had his feelings hurt and wanted to “respond freely afterward,” why wait so long? What the quoted article and the assorted CJ detractors fail to adequately acknowledge is that his comments were in response to a direct question. It seems, to me, that Roberts was perfectly happy to keep on living his life and doing his job without saying a single word about the SOTU.
Maybe there’s nothing “wrong” with using a situation where you can impugn the professional opinions of those with whom you disagree live on national TV where they are bound by decorum and tradition to sit and take it, but it certainly is boorish, rude and seems more the MO of a bully than the POTUS.
Obama bringing it up at the State of the Union speech was not respectable. Even many in the liberal MSM have stated so. Can the President or anyone else disagree with a Supreme Court decision? Of course and anyone can disagree with the President. However there is a time and a place for it and it is not the State of the Union address. As already pointed out, the State of the Union address is supposed to present some sort of unity of purpose. The President should keep that in mind when giving it. Taking the opportunity for cheap political shots is not appropriate. Also a President must take great care when attacking the Supreme Court at any time.
Is there a law that says the President has to act Presidential? No but many people expect them to.
Obama broke protocol and etiquette. His supporters don’t seem to have a problem with that but do when the other side returns the favor. The basic rule is if you want to be treated with courtesy then you need to treat others with courtesy. The President deserves to be treated the same way he treats others. He was rude and deserves to be treated rudely in kind.
Michael Reynolds, you don’t see a bit of difference between a Supreme Court Justice correctly, silently mouthing, “Not true,” and some constitutional law professor jackass from
Hawaii Illinois IndonesiaWashington D.C. intentionally misrepresenting the Supreme Court ruling?
Greenwald almost comes across as a judicial minimalist.
I really don’t think Roberts was indicating a dislike for being scolded by the president so much as he was disliking the highly political atmosphere the SOTU has become. I think it is the “sit there and pretend to be impartial” that is at issue.
As for Obama’s scolding it wouldn’t have been quite as bad, except he actually was wrong in what he said (not necessarily in his belief that the decision could lead to bad things, but his statement about the decision as it relates to the past was wrong).
Alito was right when he whispered his disagreement under his breath. Obama was indeed wrong. Which goes back to having to sit there and take it.
Also, I would note that Robert’s statement wasn’t a prepared speech or anything, it was a response to a direct question, so I don’t think it is accurate to accuse Roberts of whining about being criticized.
Do I have that right, Charles?
It’s always helpful to play ‘what if Bush had done it’ in these situations. We all know what would have happened. Straight to eleventy – Chris Matthews ‘has Bush flipped out, attacking the Supreme Court at the State of the Union, is he back on the bottle?’. Obama does it and there’s supposed to be a discussion (remember ‘Reagan did it too’ only to find out that, no, he didn’t). The media can play hide the truth all they want but the people are slowly catching on.
To abuse someone knowing that someone could not respond was a bully, a coward. Used his position to misrepresent what that someone had said while that someone could not respond was a lying bullying coward.
“Federal judges are basically absolute tyrants who rule over their courtroom and those in it with virtually no restraints…”
A straw man. Self respecting judges would never exercise their “absolute power”.
Anyway, it’s not true that a judge who presides over his court room has “absolute power” over his court room. Quite a few judges were pushed out of office for exercising their non-existing “absolute power”.
A president presides over the country. Does it mean the president has “absolute power” over the country?
Btw, even Hugo doesn’t have absolute power over his beloved Venezuela.
In other words Greenwald’s piece is a pile of bs.
Roberts should resign in protest.
With all due deference to the separation of powers…I know you are but what am I?
Ha! Of all presidential untruths to be upset about, you guys pick this one.
The one where the president over-simplified a controversial ruling and hurt a Justice’s feelings.
But that one where the president invaded a country for non-existent weapons of mass destruction? That one, it’s “Oh, he wasn’t lying…he was just wrong!”
Political loyalties…not principles.
Yes, Herb, because Alito disagreeing with a false statement about something he actually co-wrote is just like your analogy.
PD, Alito can disagree. But if he can’t keep it to himself, then stay at home.
When someone is giving a speech, you sit down, shut up, and listen, even if you disagree. This is true in school, in church, in any context really.
Buzz, I can’t think of any – _that’s the point_. Roberts is SCOTUS Justice, not a politician. _Either_ criticizing _or_ cheering is inappropriate and unprofessional of him. If he wants to wade into that arena, he needs to resign from the bar & run for office; either that or ‘man up’ and deal with criticism on controversial decisions. Also, as noted above, that speech was ages ago (in media time), yet it still seems to stick in his craw. Good grief, I get worse criticisms right here in the comments section…
sam, absolutely not. I have never maintained that President Obama is anything but an American born citizen and that he has every right to be president. Believe it or not, not everyone who disagrees with you on anything agrees with everything anyone who disagrees with you on anything believes, or is that too hard to understand?
I was only inferring that he had lived in all those places — which he definitely has. George W. Bush claimed Maine and Texas as home states. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, spent some time growing up in Kansas and Indonesia, and lived his professional life in Illinois until moving to Washington, D.C. I honestly don’t know what he considers his home state, though I think it is Hawaii.
Nice to know you’ll think the most deranged of me no matter what though.
You don’t see a bit of a difference between a guy who gives a nationally televised speech almost every single day getting up in front of the world and saying something that isn’t true, and somebody who doesn’t have the same access to the media pointing out the falsehood?
For me, it wasn’t so much what Obama said, graceless as it was, but the way the Democrats gathered around the justices, hooting. It was grotesque and cowardly.
As for the “if Bush had done it” contingent, the point is that Bush didn’t do it–nor did Clinton or Carter, for that matter. None of them would have done it either.
OK, let me be the only one to point this out: One has to be re-elected every 2 yrs. Another has to be re-elected every 4 yrs (and after 2 terms he is out), still another has to be re-elected every 6 yrs, and the last…
Once they get in, nobody ever gets to question them again.
What is equal in that arrangement?
Justice Roberts, did that mean old Barack Hussein Obama say a mean thing about you???? Gag, hack, gag, cough, hack, hack….
Please, grow up.
“oversimplified?” Try “intentionally misrepresented” and you’ll be in the ballpark.
Obama plays the bully all the time. He did it in SOTU, he does it whenever he gives his “This really is my final speech about healthcare, really, I mean it this time ….” speech. It is what he does.
Roberts gave a very direct, if genteel, response to a direct question posed by a member of an audience he had been invited to speak to. Does anyone, in this or any parallel universe, think that Obama would have given such a measured response if the situation had been reversed?
Come to think of it, the response from the White House Press Secretary, which surely had Obama’s approval, shows just how petty, immature, and thin-skinned this president is.
The attacks on Roberts on this thread are a joke. First of all, all he said was that he didn’t know why the Supreme Court attended this political rally. Every single one of the Roberts attackers would be taking exactly the opposite position if Roberts were a liberal and the president were a Republican. And yes, Obama was actually lying when Joe Wilson yelled at him and Obama the “Constitutional Law professor” mis-stated the law when Alito mouthed the fact that he was saying something that wasn’t true. Obama is a pathological liar. And now the same people who got the vapors when Alito silently pointed out the truth are whining about Roberts stating that he doesn’t know why the SCOTUS goes to the speech. Democrats are the most thin skinned, un-self-aware people on the planet earth. The other laughable point is that McCain Feingold spawned campaign spending by 527 groups without any transparency whatsoever. George Soros is rumored to have spent $80 million of his own money on 527 advertising in 2004 (the only reason that is reported is because someone ratted him out, not because of campaign finance disclosure rules), but then again, Democrats love special interests in politics; they just want to limit it to their own special interests.
As reported, Roberts is complaining about having to attend a political event where his branch is supposed to be apolitical. He is not complaining about being called out. Its a fair question about the benefit of the Justices’ attendance — any or all of them, but I don’t think its fair to assume that Roberts wants to stay away simply because he can’t take the heat.
Interesting that the term “thin skinned” has been popping up a lot in this thread.
First me, with
Then Clovis with
Then Diggs with
Then jt007 with
Has there ever been a thread where that term was used so often, or am I starting a trend? I’d say quit stealing my material, but then you’d probably just go back to stealing Rush Limbaugh’s.
I’m with Joe Y; the sight of Members of Congress standing over members of the Supreme Court cheering against them was creepy and Reichstaggy.
@An Interested Party,
The only one who is whining here is you.. about the Tea Partiers. Before that there was 8 years of non stop bitching and whining about Bush… oh wait a minute, you say.. all that was mere criticism and not “whining”.. but the Tea Partiers are not criticizing but “whining”, right ??
You Libtards get hoisted by your own petard, time and time again.
And yes, you libtards are all uniformly thin skinned
Have you heard any of these liberals whine about this ruling lets the Big Unions to spend more openly and freely for Democrats ? No, you wont.
Lest any of you liberal retards forget your Precious Moron President was the one who turned off the address verification system on his website for the 2008 Presidential Elections so that all his fraudster supporters could donate to him using fake addresses and break campaign finance limits.
A private enterprise working this way will be sued out of business. But for Chicago rats like His Emptiness, this is just how “business” is done.
And here these liberals are whining about how corporations are going to kill American democratic process -whereas there is a Corruptocrat from Chicago who behaved like a common cheat and is now POTUS.
Cry me a river, liberals.
Has there ever been a thread where that term was used so often, or am I starting a trend? I’d say quit stealing my material, but then you’d probably just go back to stealing Rush Limbaugh’s.
@Herb, you just proved how thin skinned you are – you now WHINE that there is a grand conspiracy to use the words thin skinned to describe Obamabots like you… sheesh, they werent too far off the mark to call you that, were they ?
Oh lighten the fvck up, Charles.
Houston, we have a problem.
Ha! It’s just so cool being trendy, innit?
PS. Libtard? Libtard??? Really? The only person’s feelings that is going to hurt is Sarah Palin’s.
PPS. My comment was a joke. You played into it. You are a comic genius.
re: NaSa at March 11, 2010 04:03
No whining here, sweetie…more like amusement…love the use of “libtard”…that’s even better than DemocRAT…keep up the good work…
Most pro-POTUS posters miss the major point, Obama flat out lied about the decision. Roberts therefore is being entirely appropriate in his criticisms, why should any SCOTUS member feel bound to sit expressionless while being traduced by someone as dishonest as Obama ?