Supreme Court Justices and SOTU

Dan Milbank has an amusing look at the dilemma facing Samuel Alito at his first State of the Union Address as a Supreme Court Justice: when to clap.

At times, Alito followed the lead of the other three justices who sat with him in the front row. When Bush said “We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it,” Thomas looked at Roberts, who looked at Breyer, who gave an approving shrug; all four gentlemen stood and gave unanimous applause.

At other times, Alito showed independence from his senior colleagues. When Bush delivered the stock line “The state of our union is strong,” Alito dissented while the other three robed justices in the front row applauded. When Bush declared that “liberty is the right and hope of all humanity,” Alito was the only member of the judicial quartet to provide his concurring applause.

It seemed from their frequent conferences that the justices had agreed on some ground rules: Any mention of Iraq or hot domestic disputes were off limits; broad appeals to patriotism were deemed applause-worthy. But there were disputes. When Bush said “We will never surrender to evil,” the justices conferred briefly. Breyer shook his head, but Roberts overruled him, and Breyer reluctantly stood with his three colleagues.


The justices sat stoically as the lawmakers battled over applause lines. But when Bush introduced the family of a soldier slain in Iraq and hailed “the sacrifices of America’s military families,” the justices did not need to consult. They rose and joined everybody else in the chamber in emotional applause.

I seem to remember the entire Supreme Court coming to these things in the past. As to the clapping, I think loving freedom, disdain for evil, and appreciation for sacrifice are things that should get unanimous support from our Justices.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    I felt sorry for the Marine General sitting behind Alito. The glare off the top of his ‘Friar Tuck’ must have been blinding. Probably better for him if Alito was standing.