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

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

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption ="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. Dave

    Roberts is right. Why should they bother to come. They're not accountable to ANYONE. Out of touch...out of control.

    March 10, 2010 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  2. Claude San Jose, Ca

    The justice's ruling on that case is even more troubling. Corporations are entities not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections, period!

    March 10, 2010 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |

    Does the Supreme Courts realize what "opening they have given to unseeded organizations? I would like to hear their purpose,rational and projected outcome for this decision.

    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. Sounds like their decision was very political-no matter how one cuts the cake.

    March 10, 2010 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  4. get real

    Oh, boycottt the State of the Union. I don't care. The decision you made was pure crap! Your judicial activism is what's the problem, and I am so happy the president called them out on it!

    March 10, 2010 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  5. leonardofru

    The fact that Mr. Obama would attack the Supreme Court during the State of the Union is mind boggling, even if he was correct in his opinon on the ruling, which he was not. If Bush had done that the state media would still be vibrating.

    March 10, 2010 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  6. Victim of GOP Taliban

    Don't rule from the bench with a partisan activist agenda then John. What do you expect? The President is standing right in front of you after your cronies threw the American people under the bus with your horrible ruling that breaks over 100 years of legal precedence.

    The Surpreme Court has been hijacked by elitists and Roberts wonders why the President has to defend the people against your tyranny?

    March 10, 2010 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  7. Tom in Delaware

    Obama scolded the Supreme Court in front of the nation, specifically referring to foreign corporations being allowed to donate to American political campaigns and he couldn't have been more wrong.

    The fact that he did it in a State of the Union Address with long-prepared remarks in front of the whole country was NOT BY ACCIDENT?..after all, he's the 'smartest guy in the room', remember?..How can someone who was the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review and a Constitutional Law professor not know what the impact of this Supreme Court decision really was?

    How can he be surrounded by an entire administration of speech writers and other experts that helped prepare the SOTU address and still get it wrong?

    Answer: He said everything EXACTLY the way he wanted it said.

    This is a meticulous and contrived discreditation of the highest court in the land?.notice how Press Secretary (Propaganda Minister) Robert Gibbs rephrases the remark even as he claims he is repeating the president's statement and his commitment to fighting special interest.

    One of Obama's first acts as president was to break his campaign pledge to exclude any and all former lobbyists from his cabinet.

    Last summer the Honduran Supreme Court ordered the head of the military to arrest their president because of his insistence on repeatedly violating their constitution?.this action was immediately condemned by the Obama administration.

    Kinda makes you wonder why, doesn't it?

    And it was the Cambridge Police Department that 'acted stupidly', too.

    March 10, 2010 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  8. dave

    If corporations are people under the 1st Amendment and have free speech rights, are corporations also people under the 2nd Amendment?

    Does Exxon have the right to bear arms and form its own militia?

    March 10, 2010 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  9. Gil Oberdas

    Does Roberts realize that the Robert's Court ruling about unlimited foreign campaign financing and corporate American financing will only make it worse and that busineses will be able to buy elections. Shame! 88% of Amerivans think it was a bad decision!

    March 10, 2010 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  10. Tim

    I don't think the justices should attend in the future. The State of the Union has always been a platform for the party in charge of the White House.

    March 10, 2010 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  11. erniepf

    Roberts, you and your peers' ruling on unlimited corporate political spending simply shows what a scurvy snake you really are.

    And your resemblance to Dan Quayle is disturbing. Two peabrains in a pod.

    March 10, 2010 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  12. Joseph-Ohio

    The honest truth is very few of the big shots in Washington would be there if it were not for their ability to get cash from big businesses so they can run TV ads to blindside you into thinking they represent the good of ALL people they are suppose to be representing. What ever happen to the majority of campaign funds coming from those you wish to represent? This is exactly why Washington cannot get anything done for Americans (health care, jobs) . They never will so long as big business is the Government's pimp, I thought you knew!!

    March 10, 2010 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  13. Gar

    The President should not try to embarrass the Supreme court with the criticism during a state of the Union address...this is not the change in tone we were promised when he was elected. Alito's reaction was unfortunate but subtle. The cameras should have been on the Prez, not the audience. President Obama has been a big disappointment.

    March 10, 2010 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  14. PEDRO

    Partisanship in the Legislative and Executive Branches is troubling to the Chief Justice? Well, John, no nearly so troubling as the partisan nature of the Supreme Court. How about you not trouble yourself with the President's tone and instead work on not passing rulings that overturn more than a century of precedent to give the GOP an electoral advantage. Talk about legislating from the bench.

    March 10, 2010 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  15. Bill Dwyer

    I'm not a conservative, but I have to agree here with Stevens, with one exception, he (Stevens) should not be so naive as to think that the Supreme Court does not always votes along idelogical lines, which is not any different than party lines. The vote Obama mentioned was clearly a vote for a conservative idealogical view that clearly promotes corporate infestation into the politcal process.

    March 10, 2010 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  16. Carmen, Miami FL

    If he thinks there's no partisonship in the Supreme Court, he needs to look up the definition of partisonship and take a second look at Scalia's rulings.

    Plus, the SC *was* insane to rule the way it did.

    March 10, 2010 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  17. Lisa

    Then don't bother to attend, Roberts. That stupid decision the Supremes made is really going to hurt everyone, except for large corporations. A single voter out there will never be able to compete with millions in advertising money used to throw elections. It was stupidity at it's finest and now Roberts is trying to act the victim. What a jerk.

    March 10, 2010 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  18. tess

    class(roberts) comes up against crass(o'bama)! the arrogance of this whole white house – starting at the top – is finally beginning to show. the american people are basically fair, compassionate and thoughtful. each of these qualities is missing in o'bama and his minions and that is one of the main reasons he is having trouble convincing us to believe and follow him. it is all about him, his power and remaking our beloved nation into something foreign to us – O'BAMA WE DON'T WANT YOUR IDEAS – GO SOMEWHERE ELSE IF AMERICA IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU!!!!!!!! god bless our country

    March 10, 2010 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  19. Washington gone astray.....!

    Leadership is a moral imperative, yet Wahington right now is like a
    ship without a captain or crew.There are no leaders there.
    Not only is Washington bankrupting the country financially but morally
    as well................................................................................................................

    March 10, 2010 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  20. Four and The Door

    Everything Obama does is partisan. He is what he is. Accept that.

    March 10, 2010 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  21. Stallion

    Well Chief Justice Roberts.....I agree with you. President Obama was out of line, extremely rude and went out of his way to embarrass you in his State of the Union address. Had I been sitting in your seat I would have said quite a bit more than you did before walking out of the room during the speech itself. It has become quite apparent that President Obama has Zero Class and no ability to relate to the the majority of the people in this country but world leaders everywhere.

    March 10, 2010 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  22. Helen

    leonardofru – who size are you own. Remember the big corpations have lots of money and if you think you can compete with them then you are sad. If you think they are voting for someone who is already corrupt to lead this nation and they make a profit. Then why do we vote. People need to be held accountable for their action and stop waiting until they are elected to talk about their dirty work.

    March 10, 2010 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  23. Tom

    Justice Robert's comment about politicizing the relationship is rediculous since ther has been no question that the Republican appointees to the court since the time of President Reagan have been extremely partisan. The courts action in the 2000 election showed it to be most partisan, overiding the peoples choice and refusing to validate an election through vote counting.
    This latest incident, which greatly favors Republicans and stregnthens the granting of person to corporations is absurd. The Catholic 5 justices have voted as a solid block in almost all issues.

    March 10, 2010 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  24. Tim

    leonardofru March 10th, 2010 12:48 pm ET

    The fact that Mr. Obama would attack the Supreme Court during the State of the Union is mind boggling, even if he was correct in his opinon on the ruling, which he was not. If Bush had done that the state media would still be vibrating.

    You should google before you comment as you have no idea what you're talking about.

    March 10, 2010 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  25. Laughing in Florida

    Gee, we're sorry your feelings were hurt, Bobby, but Obama's comments was not remotely as troubling as the court's decision to let corporations have a free-for all in propagandizing elections.

    March 10, 2010 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
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