March 10th, 2010
04:32 PM ET
5 years ago

Roberts calls partisanship at State of the Union 'very troubling'

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday said the annual State of the Union address has ‘degenerated into a political pep rally.’
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday said the annual State of the Union address has ‘degenerated into a political pep rally.’

Washington (CNN) – Simmering tension between the White House and the Supreme Court spilled into public this week when Chief Justice John Roberts labeled the political atmosphere at the recent State of the Union address "very troubling."

With six members of the court just a few feet away in the audience, President Barack Obama used the occasion to directly criticize the conservative majority's ruling in a campaign finance case.

Roberts told students at the University of Alabama on Tuesday that such partisanship at the annual address in Congress leaves him questioning whether members of the court should continue to attend, as most do, in accord with tradition.

"It does cause me to think whether or not it makes sense for us to be there" said the 55-year-old Roberts. "To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there."

Roberts was among the five justices who ruled in favor of loosening previous congressionally mandated restrictions on so-called "corporate" spending in federal elections. The decision opened up spending for a range of corporations, unions and advocacy groups.

The White House was quick to attack Roberts indirectly, focusing on the ruling itself, and Obama continued the criticism in his address, saying, "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."

Political fallout from the ruling continues. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on legislative efforts to blunt the impact of the decision.

Roberts on Tuesday said people have a right to respond to what the courts do, but context should be considered.

"Some people, I think, have an obligation to criticize what we do, given their office, if they think we've done something [wrong]," he said in response to a student's question. "So I have no problems with that. 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 to the requirements of protocol, has to sit there, expressionless, I think is very troubling."

Members of the Congress sat just behind the justices at the January 27 address, many applauding loudly when Obama made his remarks about the courts election spending case.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said Wednesday that Roberts would have no further public comment on the issue.

Sources close to Roberts say he has grown increasingly frustrated at what he views as the growing partisanship aimed at the federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court.

"The incident at the State of the Union only reinforced his concern the courts have become a political football," said one colleague who has spoken with the chief justice since the speech. "He's tried - publicly and privately - to reach across the branches and sought to reinforce a level of mutual respect and understanding for their work. He felt like those [Obama] remarks really hurt what the court is perceived to be doing."

These sources spoke on condition of anonymity, since they are not authorized to comment officially on his behalf.

Roberts had invited Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to a private reception at the court shortly after the two were elected in December 2008. The meeting with the justices was designed as a friendly get-together with the incoming president, a former constitutional law professor.

Justice Samuel Alito was the only one of the nine-member bench not to attend. He was criticized for his reaction to Obama's remark in January. Cameras captured him shaking his head and apparently mouthing the words "not true" as the president spoke. Obama voted against both Alito and Roberts for the high court when he was a U.S. senator.

Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens have said they do not regularly attend the annual address because of its partisan nature. Scalia has said the justices - wearing their robes - are forced to "sit there like bumps on a log," and are not supposed to show any reaction to what is being said.

Roberts also told the Alabama students the process of Senate confirmation of top judicial nominees has become too partisan, and criticized lawmakers who use the hearings to score political points.

"I think the process has broken down," he said.


Filed under: John Roberts • Popular Posts • President Obama • Supreme Court
soundoff (320 Responses)
  1. Edward Veidt

    Not only did the Supreme Court make a decision that essentially sold out all Americans, but the Court is also apparently populated with crybabies.

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  2. A True Centrist

    "Someone needs to remind the people that the SC is there to rule on "laws for the land" using the constitutions and its amendments as the foundations for their decisions. "

    The Justices ruled this was a freedom of speech issue. You should read the opinion before typing your unsubtantiated rants.

    What most uneducated people need to realize is that the campaign reform laws did nothing to reel in the corporate dollars. Now, instead of coming from the JP Morgans of the land, the money is funneled through the MoveOn.Org and Tea Party movement type organizations. The campaign reform laws were well intentioned, but like most bills passed by Congress, did nothing to solve the problem at hand (similar to the bills passed to fine airline carriers for late flights (which resulted in the most cancelled flights on record), the reforms enacted to protect credit card holders (which resulted in increased fees and interest rates prior to implementation etc...)

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  3. An Independent

    The State of the Union was not a political pep rally. Nice try to make an excuse not to attend. The Courts lack of presence would not draw the government or the people closer together. Not attending would have the opposite result of the Justices implied purpose i.e showing respect for the government as an institution.

    Mr. Roberts knows that the State of the Union had something in there for everyone. If his remarks are correctly quoted and fully quoted he should be ashamed of himself for the shallowness of those reported remarks.

    The President’s statement cut across party lines. Both parties support a change to the change the Court handed down. If the Justice is uncomfortable maybe he should stick to precedence as he said that he would during his confirmation. Now there is a thought!!!

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  4. Brijhy

    Though the First Amendment can be a bit complicated, the line between people and corporations are the easiest to draw. But realize that the Court in its decision has just rubbed out that line.

    The Supreme Court has told us that we should trust corporations more than our elected officials. Right or wrong, it is a sad comment on our democracy.

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  5. Nick , California

    Stop the press.. someone doesn't agree with the supreme court ruling that allows corporations to influence the direction of our country! I'm proud that our president has called this issue to the attention of the citizens of this country. These large corporations don't speak for the people as they exist for one reason.. to make as much money as possible.. no matter how it effects the country or the world! They are more than happy to send jobs overseas for cheap labor (profit) and bring this great nation to its knees! Have you ever heard someone say.. sorry its just business.. not personal! Well FYI, business does have a direct impact on personal lives!!!

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  6. Reality bites

    The supreme court is not above the law. They are just as political as the dems and republics...and its not relevant what if Bush would have done! The flood gate is open for more corruption in politics! Get over it leonardofru!

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  7. TheTruthForOnce, NOT BS

    Chief Justice John Roberts of courses introduces politics into this by his very statements on the subject. I'm sure he didn't ever make the same assumptions when his buddy George was blasting all those who were against taking basic rights away from them and lying to congress. It is just utterly amazing the audacity of republicans and the stupidity of democrats.

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  8. Chaz

    Only a young inexperienced president would make this type of mistake. This was no place to make such a political statement whether he felt he was right or not. There has to be a healthy respect for separation of powers. I for one am sick of this partisan BS from both parties!

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  9. Darth Cheney

    So, selling out the election process to corporations is NOT troubling, but being called out for it IS troubling.

    March 10, 2010 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  10. Mike In Carolina

    This controversy clearly defines conservative hypocracy and their double standards. When it suits their cause, claims of activist judges are heard loudy from The Right. Obama was right to criticize the unlimited infusion of corporate and foreign financing into our electorial processes. He had the guts to do so because this discounts the power of individuals and those without deep pockets.

    March 10, 2010 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  11. guest

    If Obama had any guts he would pack the court like Roosevelt did and neutralize a partisan judge like this one

    March 10, 2010 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  12. JIM CARTER

    Justic Roberts call it like it is. The ball is in your court and perhaps you just stepped on the presidont Toes.

    March 10, 2010 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  13. Joe citizen abroad

    I'm sure Chief Justice Roberts has explained why the ruling was in keeping with the letter of the law. But what about the spirit? I'd love to hear him explain how that ruling is good for America and the health of our electoral process.

    Have people gone mad? How is it a good thing to allow large organizations with limitless funds to dominate the campaign airwaves? Are we just dropping all pretense and declaring our government for sale to the highest bidder?

    Thank goodness we have a president with the courage to rebuke the court. They are not gods. They are not infallible...as much as the chief justice might like to think so.

    March 10, 2010 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  14. Ron

    First, those who criticize the Supreme Court decision don't even know the specifics of the case. I suggest researching before simply repeating what Obama said. Obama misrepresented (intentionally) because he is trying to gain political points and knows the uninformed will support him regardless of its accuracy. Second, the intention of the State of the Union (SOTU) is to tell the country the state of affairs (quick history lesson – the State of the Union used to be a written summation and not a verbal representation). the intention of the SOTU is NOT to confront a part of the three branches of government. This just shows how immature and uninformed Obama really is. I suggest the Supreme Court no longer attends the SOTU until it becomes more professional. BTW, wasn't Obama supposed to be a "Uniter" and not a "Divider"?

    March 10, 2010 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  15. Tram

    Given the fact that the Supreme Court is part of the reason we're in the mess we're in these days (and thanks to them not stopping Bush or the Patriot Act), he's got no room to talk.

    March 10, 2010 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  16. Steve

    Obama is the one that's out of touch and out of control. His Highness is still in campaign mode, and has made no attempt to learn how to govern. He came in with no experience in governance, and hopefully will be gone before he has a chance to do more damage.

    March 10, 2010 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  17. EDDIE

    What a cry baby.He voted for a stupid issue that should not have passed simple as that.I never thought that the Supreme Court could be influeneced by Corporations or bought.But then again leave it to the conseratives for a stupid decision. Everybody thank lil bush

    March 10, 2010 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  18. gary

    When an activist court led by a right-wing political Chief Justice interprets the Constitution in a way that fundamentally changes the relationship between the government and business, the President is obligated to speak up. His job is to defend and uphold the Constitution. If Roberts doesn't like this and thinks the State of the Union is a "pep rally," he ought to hide out at home.

    March 10, 2010 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  19. Indy

    Roberts might be a judge but Obama is the President !! It is his State of the Union not the judges.Sorry President always trumps a judge.

    March 10, 2010 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  20. tyler

    whether or not you agree with the SC opinion is not the point. It's fine for the President, Congress, the American people to disagree with the opinion. What is not ok is the President blasting the Supreme Court in front of a cheering Congress when the Supreme Court is required to not do or say anything while there (and Alito broke this rule). The President is free to rip on Court decisions all he wants, but it's out of line and improper to do it when the justices are there as a courtesy. The problem here is not the SC ruling, it's the way in which Obama chose to comment on it and embarrass the Supreme Court, and in the process, embarrass himself. The justices are there as a measure of good spirit and Obama guaranteed that spirit will never be extended by the SC again. Way to go, Barry O.

    March 10, 2010 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
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