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. balls mcghee

    this is a great ruling, Roberts. a Foreign owner of a major company can now donate billions to sway the election. Now a terrorist can open a company in the US and donate unlimited amounts of money to the lawmaker of his choice. Good thinking conservative judges!!

    March 10, 2010 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  2. seebofubar

    I wonder how many people would have voted for Obama if they knew what kind of an arrogant self serving duffus he is.

    March 10, 2010 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  3. Aunt Bea and Opie

    We can see this clown at 65,sitting in his rocking chair,smoking his corncobb pipe and toothless.

    March 10, 2010 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  4. Sgt. Flagg T. McLiberty, Superpatriot

    @ leonardofru:

    "The fact that Mr. Obama would attack the Supreme Court during the State of the Union is mind boggling"


    I assume, then, that you were equally offended when Mr. Obama was attacked by Joe Wilson during his 2009 address to a joint session of congress, even if Mr. Wilson was correct in his assessment that the bill would provide government-subsidized benefits to illegal immigrants, which he was not.

    March 10, 2010 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  5. J Nicholson

    Stay home.....................who cares.

    March 10, 2010 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  6. JonDie

    Roberts is a FASCIST whose goal is to destroy all semlance of civil, democratic society in order to establish a corporate, fascist state.

    March 10, 2010 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  7. Jay

    leonardofru, Obama did NOT attack the Supreme Court during the State of the Union address. Apparently, you did not listen to the address and/or are too lazy to do a little research to get your facts straight (sort of 'teabagger-like' behavior in my opinion). Obama questioned a RULING (he is a Constitutional scholar) and a poor and troubling ruling, at that. It is quite obvious to many who have studied the ruling (BOTH conservative and liberal) that the court did not consider ALL the ramifications of their decision. Maybe you don't mind Hugo Chavez or Saudi oil merchants pouring money into American politcal campaigns, but a whole bunch of us do - and the ruling by the Supreme court would allow it. Try dippingyour teabag in that!

    March 10, 2010 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  8. Angry White Male

    Just another Obama "boogey man" There's so many now, I'm losing count.

    Obama, just resign will ya? Your going to be the laughing stock of history if you do not.

    March 10, 2010 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |

    What's this idiot speaking about " a political pep rally" ? Does he not remember the former bunch of rift raft that occupied the White House that put him in the Supreme Court? That was even more of a political pep rally bunch!!

    March 10, 2010 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  10. Marty, FL

    Perhaps Justice Roberts would address Alito's broken decorum/protocol during the State of the Union? Or is that a politically absent in this address for partisan reasons?

    The irresponsible ruling needed to be acknowledged to the legislative branch so that laws can be passed to balance this judicial activism, especially allowing foreign nationals to influence our elections.

    March 10, 2010 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  11. Tom from Vermilion, Ohio

    I would like to hear from the Justices who DID NOT vote for the resolution, their opinion, etc. Could someone at CNN respond?

    March 10, 2010 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  12. Gail

    I think the Supreme Court needs to face reality: The United States is a democracy where the Court can be criticized. Justice Roberts is not an island unto himself.

    March 10, 2010 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  13. Mark

    Screw you Roberts. I fully admit to contempt of YOUR type of court. You should stay away from the State of Union address. Instead sit in your lofty ivory tower and continue to rule in favor of the almighty $$ instead of the law you swore an oath to uphold. You and your cowardly partners reek of being bought and paid for. If there was ever a good reason to have a term limit established on SC justices, you are the poster child of it.

    March 10, 2010 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  14. Steve, Jackson MS

    Hmm- maybe Roberts forgets that the Pep-rally atmosphere started with Reagan, for whom he worked. After all the years of the R's complaining about "Judicial Activism" to whomever was listening, it seems a bit disingenuous of Roberts to complain about the Supremes being taken to task by a Democratic President. Perhaps he can spend the next 60 State of the Union Addresses thinking about what "Governement of the people, by the people, and for the people" really means.

    March 10, 2010 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  15. A. Goodwin

    They should not be there. Why doesn't Roberts just grab a hanky and cry...he sounds like a cry-baby!

    March 10, 2010 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  16. AK Steve

    Roberts and the rest of the "Justices" are some of the most privileged people in the entire world. They have power, money, prestige (not to mention jobs and health care for life).

    Stop your whining. Out of all the people in America – YOU have NOTHING to complain about. Politics is partisan – the supreme court is supposedly neutral. So go to the state of the union. And if the President critizes you, well then take your medicine.

    It's not like you have REAL problems like the Americans who lack health care, housing and jobs.

    March 10, 2010 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  17. Liberty Queen

    Yeah, Justice Roberts, you would know what being political is having given corporations free rein in election spending. So much for Of The People, By The People and For The People. Why don't you just resign now.

    March 10, 2010 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  18. Wake Up

    This illustrates the exact problem of the left-wing progressives. They only want rules to apply to other people. This is called equal branches of govt! Never has a president stooped so low. Obama isn't king!!!

    March 10, 2010 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  19. John

    President Obama is reaching.......

    it's clear he is in over his head on many issues facing America. Show some freaking respect, Barry..... Do you think your the first president to disagree with the bench?!!! Hardly..... but you may be the first to be so classless as to call them out during a State of the Union Speech...

    Obama = no class

    March 10, 2010 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  20. Marc

    Judge Roberts is simply trying to shield himself and the other activist conservative judges from criticism over what is a very bad decision. What is very troubling is the highly partisan, unjust ruling at which the President's commments were directed.

    March 10, 2010 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  21. Jerry

    Obama and his agenda are anti-american and the ruling means nothing except he will be voted out in 2012,

    March 10, 2010 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  22. Judy

    Being a bully is what Obama does best. I am so sick of how demeaning our president has become if anyone dare not agree with him or his policies. 2012 can't come soon enough.

    March 10, 2010 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  23. Brian

    Dave – They should not be acountable to anyone – except the law. I am not sure how many of the people commenting here are legal scholars, but the case was decided within the limits of the law. Would you really want a Supreme Court Justice be able to be bought by lobbiest? You seem to be out of touch ....

    March 10, 2010 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  24. Robert Ray

    Who's reporting this crap? the supreme court justices historically do nor attend the state of the union and it's members should never comment on politics period.

    March 10, 2010 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  25. republicans hate america

    get over it Roberts he called you people out for what you are activists judges legislating from the bench.

    March 10, 2010 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
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