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. Daniel

    It's called the constitution folks. Maybe you should try and read it before you comment. They made a ruling based upon that and nothing more. You libtards are what is wrong with this country. A bunch of ignorant people running around saying ill informed comments.

    Just like everything else this president does, more intimidating and grandstanding. This president can't get anything done. He couldn't even get anything done with a super majority. You people better wise up and start fending for yourself and stop depending on this guy who doesn't have one business executive in his office. You need to realize this country is not about the have and the have nots. It's about the will do and the won't do. Just because you are lazy doesn't mean you deserve a thing. Take are of yourself and stop being lazy.

    March 10, 2010 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  2. awaitingliberalizationbyCNN

    We liberals only support law and judges when they are in our favor, which of course the trial lawyers are all of the time. That is why we excluded tax saving tort reform from the health insurance reform fiasco that will bankrupt this nation. Of course we also smoke dope as do most of the people who vote for us.

    March 10, 2010 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  3. An 8 year old ELEPHANT dung heap, does not transform into compost in just 1 year!

    Giving corporations the same rights as individuals was the real "partisanship".

    Allowing companies to buy Congressional seats was a travesty.

    President Obama did not attack the Supreme Court, he merely point out the stupidity of the 5 cons.

    March 10, 2010 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  4. Jim

    The Supreme court has troubled me more than the President with some of its obviously partisan rulings. The corporate donations ruling was certainly "jusdicial activism" as was Gore vs. Bush. These guys were mostly appointed by Republicans and they were appointed with an agenda in mind.

    March 10, 2010 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  5. Joe

    But it was OK for the supreme court to throw the 2000 election to Bush? That wasn't partisan or inappropriate?

    The number of justices on the supreme court is not set in stone or law. Obama should appoint as many new leftest justices as it will take to correct the problems that Roberts and his ilk are causing. I know FDR tried it and it didn't work. That doesn't mean it can't be done.

    March 10, 2010 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  6. sonny chapman

    A Conservative "activist court"? I thought that was an exclusive Liberal malady.

    March 10, 2010 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  7. rleb blco

    I think is very troubling," Roberts is saying that, who he think he is?? A God? A dirt god maybe! He had erected himself as? He is as human as those homeless, on the street, the only difference is that we the people pay all he s school, now what he is doing! Trying to destroy our CONSTITUTION! (Legislating from the bench)

    March 10, 2010 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  8. Rumsfeld

    Be careful Mr. Roberts as you live in a glass house. It is not appropriate to drag this issue out. The President has a right to his opinion and as the leader of this country. The Supreme Court made the wrong decision in this matter and special interests will be taking over. Let's call a dog, a dog and laugh at the partisan politics. Washington is full of fools.

    March 10, 2010 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  9. Rupugliban are Repugnant Taliban

    From the most disturbing and partisan chief justice to ever serve do we really care? The reason so many jumped on the ruomor that this moron was quitting is because most people know the country would be much better off is this despicable cretin were not on the Supreme Court. Bigoted morons of this caliber do not deserve to be dog catcher let alone chief justice.

    March 10, 2010 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  10. The Other Michael in Houston

    Awwwwwwwwwww is Justice Roberts little feeings what crybaby, it is about time that someone start calling you out for you political motivated decisions. I am happy that the President called you out in front of the country. You still have not explained tou us, the American people how you came to that bone headed conclusion in the first place. Fine stay you butt at home, you litle spoiled cry baby. Hey Leonardofru, maybe Bush should have called out the Supreme Court on a quite a few decisions, but his Master Rove would not have let him anyway. Keep up the good work President Obama, we will be there for you in 2012 to give you another 4 years as we were there in 2008. I hope you Tea people/Republicans have someone ready by 2016.

    March 10, 2010 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  11. Mike in MN

    For someone who campaingned as a uniter, Obama is going out of his way to make a lot of enemies. The Supreme Court for one. Then he has attacked the oil companies, the banks, insurance companies and auto company executivers. Then there is pretty much any one who has used their talents and hard work to achive the American dream and attained any level of wealth. There were also the investors in the auto companies who did not want to take a worse deal then they were entitled to so the unions could get a better deal than they were entitled to. He has mocked the Tea Party activits and virtually all of his major policies are opposed by a majority of voters.
    Who's side is Obama on? Trade unions and trial lawyers and anyone who loves a nanny state government. Obama is pro government and anti business. If you doubt just listen to what SEIU leader Andy Stern, the most frequent guest to the White House, has to say about Obama and the economy. He says we finally have a president who will use government to run the economy instead of an economy run by the private sector. Sounds like socialism to me. Andy Stern should know, he spends more time with Obama than just about anyone except maybe his wife, Emanuel, Gibbs and Axelrod.

    March 10, 2010 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  12. Susan

    The ruling from the Supreme Court is what is TROUBLING. Roberts need to do his job for the people and not for the republican party.

    March 10, 2010 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  13. Jon

    I truly echo Judge Roberts' sentiment. I watched Obummer's State of Union speech with disgust and dismay. Honestly, I like everyone else witnessed the horrible scene for the 1st time in our country's history when the current President openly took a very partisan extremism to criticize the another equal branch of the federal goverment, Superior Court. This occurred when 6 judges sit just a few feets away from Obummer's face and surrounded by DemocRat lawmakers. All partisan democRATs jumped up right behind or surrounding the 6 sitting helpless judges. It is really horrible, indeed.

    March 10, 2010 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  14. Angie in PA

    Who cares YOU WERE WRONG WITH YOUR DECISION corporations are not people SAVE OUR DEMOCRACY!

    March 10, 2010 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  15. Carlos

    Roberts is the one taking a partisan stance and whining to the media... behavior unprofessional and unbecoming of a Chief Justice. And yes, the Supreme Court made a ridiculous ruling clearly designed to benefit corporate interests at the expense of the people.

    March 10, 2010 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  16. An 8 year old ELEPHANT dung heap, does not transform into compost in just 1 year!

    So NOW the Reds are concerned about the sitting!

    No such concern when the twit yelled "You lie" at the President during an address to both Houses.

    But now because it was the State of the Union and they were present he cannot disagree in a civil manner??

    Hypocrisy, thy name is republiklan!

    March 10, 2010 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  17. The Unsub

    Get rid of them.

    March 10, 2010 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  18. Willa-PA

    The five right justices are chosen by the right and will abide by the right, justice or not, they will rule on the right wing agendas. Obama was right to call them out because the money of the right will rule for the rich and corporations, not on the middle class or poor.

    March 10, 2010 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  19. Dan

    The President was right to criticize the decision of the Supreme Court. It seems to me their decision was politically motivated.

    March 10, 2010 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  20. SocialismBad

    What Obama and the DemocRATS did to the Supreme Court justices was despicable. I was hoping the justices got up and walked out. Obama and the DemocRATS knew the justices would be easy targets for this disgusting taunting and ridicule.

    Just more of the same Chicago thuggery from Obama and his liberal cabal in Congress. They despise the Constitution and those whose job it is to interpret it.

    They need to grow up and try to beg, borrow or steal an ounce of class.

    March 10, 2010 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  21. gtablo

    pres. Obama was right to criticize the Supreme Court. Corporations whether foreign or domestic should not be allowed unlimited campaign contributions. How could the Supreme Court think that after 100 years, this law was unconstitutional.

    March 10, 2010 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  22. Jim


    Remember your support for that decision when people who get elected only pass laws to support the large corporations who funded their elections. I agree that the State of The Union has become pure political theater, but to condemn Obama for saying something about the decision when it clearly affects the state of the Country is a little disingenous. And as currently seated, SCOTUS is going to continue to do what they accused now-Justice Sonya Sotomayor of trying to do... legislate from the Bench. It's time that we place term limits not just on Congress and the Senate, but on all political appointed positions as well.

    March 10, 2010 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  23. SenorPlaid

    Well, John, I have a BIGGER problem with the partisanship of the Supreme Court. Get your own house in order first, GOP Puppet Boy.

    March 10, 2010 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  24. jeff

    It seems hypocritical for Roberts to complain about partisanship at the state of the union while the Supreme Court since Renquist may be the most partisan branch of government ever. You can tell what the decisions will be once a case is accepted . How else to account for decisions like Bush v Gore or this one which focus only on how to empower Republicans. Too bad the rumors of Roberts stepping down were false. He is a hack just like Scalia, Thomas and Alitto

    March 10, 2010 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  25. surveyman

    The Supreme Court is bound to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Just because the other branches of government refuse to do so is no reason to attack it.

    March 10, 2010 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
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