March 10th, 2010
04:32 PM ET
4 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. Marcus Tate

    And it appears special interests own the Supreme Court as well. Why did they vote to allow the use of Eminent Domain to take people's properties for shopping malls? Eminent Domain was a wartime law to prevent foreign countries from establishing bases in the US. It was not meant to be used to take land from private citizens for personal gain and greed. Again, Shame on John Roberts and the other members of the Supreme Court who vote on behalf of big business and special interests.

    March 10, 2010 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  2. JA/TN

    Cheif Justice Roberts is bogus, because the man that appointed was bogus, Bush was appointed by the supposed Supreme Court, which is inheritly flawed, no office should be held till death or resignation in a land of democracy, seventy-five ought be the maximum age, even to serve as President of the United States

    March 10, 2010 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  3. Brendan

    You know what is even more troubling? The unprecedented conservative activism on the part of Chief Justice Roberts and the other Justices who ruled to let corporations buy and sell our Democracy!

    Justice Roberts should get ready for more of that kind of treatment if they rule against gun control laws in the next few months. The Supreme Court is supposed to defend the Constitution, not edit it to suit a political philosophy!

    March 10, 2010 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  4. Doug,lib jersey

    Ha ha, Obama, the guy who got campaign money from Mickey Mouse, the guy who was the lawyer for ACORN, the guy in bed with the mobster union thugs...A lib is nothing without its lies and hypocrasy.

    March 10, 2010 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  5. Moderate

    It has been a long standing fact that Suprem Court Justices do not make any political statements, nor endorse any political views. "Presidents can". Now you have just tipped your hand on any review or ruling you make as being partisan. You need to be kicked off the bench!

    Instead of worrying about the presidents politics, maybe you can start remembering the oath of office so you don't look so silly next time you administer it !

    March 10, 2010 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  6. SC-Pub "no" more

    Why is it "not troubling" for the Chief Justice to go to the University of Alabama and criticize the President?
    You and your conservative co-horts were wrong John; so, take it like a man and quick your whinney campaign!

    March 10, 2010 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  7. Bedtime for Obonzo

    If I were a Supreme Court justice, there isn't a chance that I'd attend another State of the Union address so long as the Beloved Leader is in office.

    And for those of you carping about the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, I suggest that you read the opinion, as I'm sure none of you have done so to date. After, you're still free to disagree, but at least you'll have an informed opinion.

    March 10, 2010 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  8. ndanielson

    arpapikos. unseeded, like ACORN? Un-vetted like Obama, van jones and the czars? The love of your life, O blah blah, has his own share of campaign finance shenanigans, but in your lame world, you will never hear of them. What lame world, you ask? The lame world of the Lame Stream Media, and it's very own leader to the depths of irrelevance, CNN!

    Dave, accountable to anyone like the EPA and o blah blah's czar appointments?

    Get real, activist judges like the ones who continually overturn the will of the people when they vote against gay marriage?

    you people are ALL a joke.

    March 10, 2010 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  9. malia

    Hats off to you, Chief Justice Roberts. Obama made a complete fool out of himself at the State of the Union, then the MSM blames Justice Alito. Unbelievable!

    The problem with Obama is that he seems to think he is always the "smartest guy" in the room...laughable!

    CNN should stop calling Obama "a former constitutional law professor" because he was not, he was more of a rookie part-time lecturer.

    March 10, 2010 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  10. Stephen in Bedford, TX

    Political views have always played a role in the SC to some degree. However, it seems that we have become so politically divided now, since the SC's role in selecting George Bush, that the lines between the seperation of powers have become blurred beyond distinction.
    I think we should reconsider the lifetime appointment to the SC.

    March 10, 2010 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  11. bmicore

    If Obama has erred then the next election will take care of him. Roberts however will be ruling for next 30 years!
    State of Union is used for political purposes.. Did we not launch a ill advised war ? No sympathy for CJ. I believe this is still a democratic country...

    March 10, 2010 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  12. Daniel

    Why wasn't my comment left on here CNN? Not liberal enough?

    March 10, 2010 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  13. Jeremy in Albuquerque

    You've made your corporation coddling bed, Roberts, now lie in it, whiner.

    March 10, 2010 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  14. alumette

    Roberts is a right wing republican who will impose his views every chance he gets and that's why Bush appointed him. No real sense of Justice there but absolute biased opinion. Very sad. Of course, he sees it the other way. For him, there is only one way: HIS.

    March 10, 2010 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  15. File under "Sarcasm"

    The usual misrepresentation of the facts by the White House. A century of law was not undone, contribution rules on "foreign corporations" were not changed.

    I'm sure Obama would have been ecstatic if the ruling had only opened up the spending rules for his special interest group, the unions. He would have touted that as a triumph of justice for the common man as opposed to those evil, greedy, self-serving corporations.

    March 10, 2010 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  16. Mike, Ohio

    I have to agree with Roberts on this. Agree with the decision or not, making a partisan statement about another branch of government in a public form which they are unable to defend themselves (or even show emotion for that matter) is troubling. What Obama (and the rest of the government for that matter) need to realize is that American people as a whole are sick of partisan bickering and unless something drastic happens in the somewhat near future this country may become broken beyond repair.

    March 10, 2010 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  17. AC

    After what Joe Wilson shouted out ("You Lie") at the last State of the Union address, Everything is fair game now. This isn't the United States of America anymore, This Country is a joke, no one has respect for the highest office (The President) of the land, just because he is a Black Man. Even if Preisdent Obama f-up, the Bush Administration will still go down in the History books as the worst of them all!! Bet on that.

    March 10, 2010 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  18. Michael in Houston

    Attack the supreme court during the State of The Union?? I believe the President said the Supreme courts decision to allow corporations to flood our political process was a terrible decision. And it was. And it is. And he being THE PRESIDENT had every right to say it.

    And heres an idea...DONT GO TO THE NEXT STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS. I would love nothing more then to watch the next SOTU address without having to see any of these right winged freaks anyways.

    March 10, 2010 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  19. alumette

    Maybe it is time to have these high court judges scrutinized. Why should they have so much power? That alone seems unconstitutional to me. We are at the mercy of individuals who see justice THEIR way. Hello!

    March 10, 2010 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  20. gwen from Ohio

    @leonardofru "even if he was correct, which he was not"

    You better do more research, Obama was right on the money – corporations even those foreign owned will be able to contribute huge amounts of money to campaigns, which could basicly buy a candidate – it is unconstitutional – corpoartions can't vote they shouldn't be able to contribute excessive amounts to taint elections!! This is just another move by the conservatives to get the wealthy more power and hurt the working man!! Roberts is suppose to interpret the law not undo law that has been in place for decades!! Roberts is a nothing more than a republican shrill – doing their dirty work – never mind the work of a supreme court justice and being honorable!!

    March 10, 2010 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  21. nick

    The Surpreme Court has become the political action arm of the RNC. GWB stole the election of 200o just so these goose-stepping right-wing nut jobs could be installed as "Justices"... what a hideous joke on the American people since these ding-dongs do not know the first thing about justice or equity or decency. Its all about the Republican Party Line – that is justice in America.

    March 10, 2010 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  22. Avg Guy in Red State Kansas

    It's been years since the Supreme Court has NOT practiced "judicial activism". I got so weary hearing critics of so-called "liberal" appointees raise the "judicial activism" chant.

    Looks like they were right all along but accused the wrong people!

    March 10, 2010 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  23. rs

    It is interesting that the judicial activism the Republicans railed against for years suddenly became alright after Bush packed the Supreme Court with ultra-rightists. Sure, civility would dictate thet the President ought not call out Roberts by name (and in fact he didn't). The ruling however was way off base. Corporations in no circumstances should ever have the rights of citizens. Obama was right to call the decision out. The revelation on foreign money is dead-on. How many purely American companies are there? Many have foreign partners and subsidiaries.
    Obama didn't call Roberts out, but I can: Roberts is another elitist Republican- out of touch and looking out for # 1.

    March 10, 2010 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  24. MatthewDetroit

    Barack Obama was 100% wrong.

    He has dirtied and dumbed down the presidency of the United States.

    He has put the position in a very dark light.

    He has lowered the respect for the office.

    He showed great disrespect for the Supeme Court.

    He does not respect the office, the people he serves, nor America. He is arrogant and is and was a terrible choice for President.

    I am ashamed that this man tricked so many people into voting for him.

    March 10, 2010 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  25. Ancient Texan

    If Labor Unions can legally give millions of dollars out of union pension funds to buy an election for the candidate of their choice, why not corporations? Obama was wrong on this, as usual.

    March 10, 2010 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
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