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. Sadie

    I think the Supreme Courts ruling is more troubling than Obama criticizing them on their discission.......the problem with both parties is the large amount of monies they receive to make sure the Big Corporations, Business get their way........both Parties are more involved in raising money than working on the issues at hand.......the Supreme Court was WRONG.......Roberts is just a Republican adding more fuel to the fire.......

    March 10, 2010 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  2. MatthewDetroit

    The Supreme Court is seperate and was designed that way.

    Mr. CHavez/OBAMA would like to control and FORCE everyone to follow his lead and decisions.

    He is a terrible leader and simply a dictator in waiting.
    He believes in Chavez and that way of doing business.

    March 10, 2010 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  3. mountainview

    If foreign and domestic corporations, money men and organizations have the right to use propaganda under the 1st amendment right of speeech, why do they ban cigarette, porno and other comanies and agenda be free speech. I think the Supreme Court is absolutely wrong

    March 10, 2010 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  4. donttreadonme

    It was inappropriate and showed just how smug this President is! Remember the we will do it my way because “I won” statement. Dems are about to get their collective teeth kicked in!

    March 10, 2010 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  5. insightful

    Roberts and company have contributed to the growing partisanship strain because, clearly, the Supreme Court ruling in question has definitely favored the Republican party, much the same way Alito and company gave the 2000 Presidency to GW Bush. How partisan can you get without being called out for it??!!

    March 10, 2010 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  6. MatthewDetroit

    Mr. Obama is a socialist Idealogue who simply looks to push the

    country into that direction as soon as possible.
    Mr. Obama will then build a communist dictatorship to force all Americans under his control. The benelovent dictator is not here to help any of us.

    Barack is Anti American and is Anti the American Way.
    He is not a patriot.
    He is an Enemy of the State.

    March 10, 2010 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  7. Chucka

    Out of touch is correct. This was not a partisan comment even though it was uttered by a Democratic president. Even Republican John McCain was highly critical of the court's decision stating that the court had undone years of campaign finance reform. I agree with the earlier comment about court activism. Does the court not understand that the legislature enacts the laws that they the court is then to uphold?

    March 10, 2010 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  8. Independent

    Chief Justice is venturing into politics by deliberatey choosing to respond. When everyone has forgotten and moved on, why should he raise it again. It shows very clearly the bitterness and desperation in the Chief Justice and his colleagues who voted for the rule in favor of the corporations. I am surprised at the level of political activism among the judiciary. Not good at all for the country..

    March 10, 2010 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  9. MatthewDetroit

    The State of the Union is just that...

    It is an opportunity for the President of the United States to tell the American People what condition the Country is in and what he will be doing to fix the country.

    Barack used it as another low level Cheerleading exercise.
    He used it as a rah rah exercise.
    He used it as a political stunt.
    No One is supposed to be political during the state of the union.
    It is about the country NOT Barack.

    Barack is a joke and has made the US Presidency a Joke.

    March 10, 2010 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  10. ~~ JULY ~~ ( Sarah Palin is the Paris Hilton of Politics)

    You go because you have NOTHING else to do!! YOU were put in the chair by a President ... so whoever happens to be President ... YOU go!!

    March 10, 2010 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  11. Steve (the real one)

    Corporations, unions, and advocacy groups have always funded politicians. In fact, they still do! They STILL lobby! All policians, to include the current President have raked in millions from these groups. Exaclty why do you think he rejected public funding? More money from the unions, corporations, and special interest groups! BTW, Foreign funding is STILL ILLEGAL! Althought I don't get the corporations are invidiuals thing! The thing is to do your research before voting! Seek facts and stop worrying about commercials and endorsements!

    March 10, 2010 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  12. People Not Corporations Comprise This Country

    Unfortunately, Justice Roberts fails to see how the court has become "Political" in the past 30 years as Ronald Reagan and Daddy Bush stacked it with conservative judges.

    Far too many of their rulings fall along that very partisan 5 to 4 line. The Courts behavior has been political. It is the height of Roberts arrogance to suggest that the court should be above criticism when so many of it's decisions are not based on principle but rather politics.

    Decide the bulk of the issues by a 7 to 2, or an 8 to 1 margin and then come back and see the American PEOPLE about your criticism.

    I can only hope that President Obama serves two terms and then the citizens are smart enough to elect another Democrat to the White House. That way, unexpected illnesses notwithstanding, the imbalance in the court can be corrected as Scalia, Thomas and the other 60-somethings on the court approach 80 years old.

    March 10, 2010 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  13. Chicken-Supreme

    Good. Don't attend!

    March 10, 2010 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  14. Susan L.

    Oh give me a break. You're Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, not the Supreme Deity! You are subject to criticism, too, Roberts you idiot. Look what 8 years of George W. Bush did to us! It left us with a tremendously rightward leaning court with idiots like Roberts and Alito. Suck it up and deal, Roberts, you primadonna!

    March 10, 2010 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  15. Tina

    I remember during Clinton years, Pres. Clinton did not pick on fights with anyone whether othe political party or supreme court. Now with Obama, whaty this administration do best is steering fights and pointing fingers or blames. The Whitehouse should be an examplification of class not roudy individuals picking fights on whoever passes the street.

    Obama should divert their energy to fixing the deficits and job creation. Latest stimulus failure should be fix.

    March 10, 2010 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  16. Ben

    get real – "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!"

    Then you don't have a clue. Your BS about Roberts being a judicial activist is nonsense. If anything, the REAL judicial activist on the court is Sotomayor. You just don't want to admit it. Obama had no business chastising the Court in front of a national TV audience. That was totally inappropriate.

    March 10, 2010 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  17. Jeff in Virginia

    I'm glad that Roberts has finally realized what the rest of us have known for years.

    Bush most certainly used the SOTU as as pep rally- this is just more of the typical conservative hypocrisy.

    March 10, 2010 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  18. Bill NY

    I find it amusing coming from the leader of the Dredd-Scott Court.
    All I saw at the State of the Union address was old out of touch with everything bags of bones in judicial gowns. Activist judges ruling from the bench.

    March 10, 2010 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  19. Ken

    I get a kick out of the folks who spoute "corporations are entities and not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections".

    Of course, the logical conclusion of this line of thought is that corporations, who are not people, and can not vote, and should have no political freedom of speach on how business is attacked daily by liberal left leaning socialist idealogs, SHOULD NOT BE TAXED.

    It is so hard to find a liberal argument that can be logically defended.

    March 10, 2010 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  20. Ben in Texas

    Impeach the Extreme Court 5, who sold our constitutional system down the river!

    March 10, 2010 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  21. Tom in Florida

    Roberts is a Idiot and America Knows it!

    March 10, 2010 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  22. beevee

    I ahve some advice for justice Roberts. if you can't take crticism from the president you are free to resign your job as the chief justice and be free. The same goes to Mr. Alito.

    March 10, 2010 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  23. Bertina

    A case of reverse activism 😉

    March 10, 2010 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  24. Ben

    Dave – Who is really out of touch here? The Supreme Court or Obama and his minions? Poll numbers don't lie.

    March 10, 2010 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  25. balls mcghee

    please. so everytime a president speaks out against abortion at these things, i want to hear Roberts coem out a reject it. After all, the law allows for abortion.

    March 10, 2010 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
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