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. Debra from Georgia

    Stay home and don't come to the state of the union, you are for the Republicants anyway

    March 10, 2010 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  2. JayDee

    If I remember, Justic Roberts FORGOT the correct wordfing of the President's oath office on inauration day. Now, it sounds like he wants to see the right-wing GOP red-neck hate-mongerers return to the speaker's platform giving the State of the Union. Hey with justices like this (and Scalia, Thomas, et al), we probably do need "pep rallies"!!

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

    Claude –

    In every other law we define Corporations as People – with the same responsibilities as people. Why should this one be different?

    March 10, 2010 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  4. GreedIsGood

    So let's just give corporations all the rights of people, and be done with it. General Electric for President in 2012!

    March 10, 2010 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  5. dan

    Poor baby Roberts.Then dont come to the next one.You and your bad judgement can miss it all you want.Think of all the voters you disappointed.You dont belong judging a pet show let alone in the courts.

    March 10, 2010 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  6. JLW in Indian Springs,Al.

    Roberts needs to learn just what his job is. The five rogues did what they did to aid the Republican party. Him and his ilk will continue to ruin this country along with the Republicans.

    March 10, 2010 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  7. Anthony R. Seta

    The decision by the SCOTUS in regards to the Campaign Finance Laws is truly troubling. In the 20 years that I've been paying attention to politics, nothing has shattered by belief in US democracy more than this particular decision. Roberts is correct – he and the other members of this rightwing activist court should just no longer attend the State of the Union speeches, particularly when their actions/decisions directly contribute to furthering the dysfunction of our democratic system.

    March 10, 2010 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  8. fhjetta

    Amazing how the Liberals speak about the constitution when it suits.
    Remember Bill Clinton money from China and where did all the money come from for Obama? That has never been made public and never will.

    March 10, 2010 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  9. Mr Dave Lister

    Obama continues to prove how spoiled and immature he is. He cries every time he doesn't get his way or if anybody disagrees with him. BO is a complete and total global embarrassment.

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

    Hmmmm..... A guilty conscience needs no accuser?

    March 10, 2010 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  11. James

    Shut up, Roberts. Obama is right. You and your ilk in the SC are a joke. You had NOTHING to say about partisanship when Bush and his cronies ramrodded the two wars, a huge deficit, and countless other terrible policies down the American people's throats, but now you start sassing off. Do us all a favor and resign.

    March 10, 2010 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  12. Patty in California

    Partisanship? Troubling? Isn't that how he got his current lifetime job? Wasn't it a partisan payoff? One that he's still repaying?

    March 10, 2010 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  13. Dennis

    Roberts wil go down as one of the greatest Chief Justices ever. He is only 55 now. He has a long time to shape the direction of the Court.

    March 10, 2010 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  14. Stortz

    You’d think this guy would be happy to be a Justice on the Supreme Court, more so being the Chief Justice, but he’s not…

    Complaining about his pays scale and partisan politics, and the fact that he cannot control the emotions of the Justices during the State of the Union etc...

    Really, Chief Justice Roberts ought to consider improving his life by going back into private practice.

    March 10, 2010 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  15. cmatter

    whats more troubling is the ruling itself.

    Obama was right to call them out on it

    how audacious od Roberts to actually gripe about it

    Thanks Alot Dubya!

    March 10, 2010 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  16. Bessy

    President Obama was correct. As for what President Bush would or would not have done, well ,he owned them everything. After all, they put him in office the 1st time. Not the American people.

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

    he's another one of GW's mistakes.

    March 10, 2010 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  18. Max

    And partisanship in the Supreme Court is more troubling Mr. Roberts! At least Obama is a politician.

    March 10, 2010 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  19. Patrick

    Funny how the article talks about a ruling by the "conservative majority" of the court... THIS is partisanship, and the decision criticized by President Obama was a partisan one. Chief Justice Roberts should stop hiding behind his position and the Court should learn to stay within the scope of its powers.

    March 10, 2010 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  20. kevin

    Libertards are funny. And uneducated.

    March 10, 2010 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  21. Monkey wrench

    What would you expect from a second rate pep rally President for the Entitled?
    Go Obama, Go Rahmbo, Go Healthcare Reform, Go unemployment, There Goes Americas greatness!

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

    The Supreme Court is out of control and too political on their decision on campaign contributions. These are republicans trying to steal elections through the corporations. Americans are not foolish.

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

    President Obama was right to call out Roberts and his neanderthal right wing cohorts on the court. The decision will go down in history as one of the most horrible opinons in the history of this nation. Roberts should be ashamed but he will not be because he is bought and paid for by the GOP.

    March 10, 2010 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  24. Al-NY,NY

    I suppose a loud-mouthed congressman yelling "You lie" is as bad at least to clear thinking people? Of course GOP hacks will not agree. And the fact that over 75% agree that the SC decision was bad, what does Roberts have to complain about?

    March 10, 2010 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  25. James Brooklyn N.Y.

    I find judge Roberts disturbing. He is part of the B.T.O. (Bush terrorist organization)

    March 10, 2010 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
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