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. The Calabash Kid

    Roberts is a Republican Party hack. He and the four other Republican Party hacks who decided to give our democracy to Exxon, IBM, Disney, and other global corporations will go down in history as the corporate hirelings they are. I hope that remorse over what they have done will compel them to resign. Because they lack conscience or patriotism, that seems pretty unlikely.

    March 10, 2010 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  2. Sue

    Obama is the Manchurian Candidate.........Put into office by the likes of Reverand Wright, William Ayers, Tony Rezko, Louis Farrakhan, etc.--to destroy our economy/country from within.

    The Republicans and majority of Independents have figured this out.......The moderate/sane Dems are beginning to figure this out as well.

    March 10, 2010 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  3. Tom in Delaware

    I'd love for Roberts to come out and say that he thinks the Health Care bill is in violation of the 10th Amendment and therefore Un-Constitutional.

    I bet Obama and the MSM would get their panty's in a bunch then!

    November 2010 – Democrat's Big Vacation

    March 10, 2010 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  4. S Callahan

    Stand your ground Justice Roberts....this office is most important to the everday citizen...not the corportate dogs. It's always the bigger picture that matters in the end. Some are just to 'short sighted' to see that.

    March 10, 2010 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  5. Jimbo

    That was the State of the Union? Thought it was MTVs "yo mama".

    March 10, 2010 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  6. JDD

    The President voiced his opinion in an improper forum.

    Roberts was right – and two of the other Justices already don't attend for this very reason.

    This Administration indeed continues to "attack Roberts indirectly, focusing on the ruling itself," That's a diversion. The ruling isn't the issue – the issue is the improper use of the State of the Union address to put political pressure on the Judicial Branch of government.

    March 10, 2010 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  7. Bob Dog

    There are very few things more troubling to the future of the United States than increasing the influence of corporations in our political system, as Mr. Roberts recently achieved.

    March 10, 2010 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  8. Sniffit

    remember this people............

    obama was the first pressidential candidate to campaign overseas

    ........crushing campaign donations (if you think it was all ligit then seek professional help)

    and he is worried about corporations donating to campaigns

    what about all the money going into washington to influence policy?

    obama has no clue how things work............just smile and pledge this and pledge that..........maybe americas short memory will just laps and go ga ga over eash and every empty promise

    March 10, 2010 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  9. Frayie, Oklahoma City

    Justice Robert, remember Barack is the President and you are a mere justice. Not in the same league with him. Shut up and listen to him speak because the State of the Union Address is his forum. If you dont like it, join the unemployment line.

    March 10, 2010 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  10. verbalobe

    a. Obama criticized the decision, not the court
    b. It was far from a partisan/political decision to spotlight. It was a bipartisan campaign finance issue, the issue of big money (further) corrupting political dialogue.
    c. Oh wait, unless you believe the decision would favor Republicans. Is that what you believe? Golly, when I heard people saying this was judicial activism in favor of Republicans, I heard others counter with "Democrats have just as much big money donors, with Hollywood and organized labor..." Hmm. Equal financial impact = non-partisan issue. Or did you want to have your cake and eat it too? Fail.

    March 10, 2010 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  11. JOE M

    If the court was not so partisan, maybe this would not be an issue. Actually, Roberts and Alito might as well have sat in the republican half of the Congress. The democrat leaning members should have sat in the democratic half. One big joke is this court. Just let them all sit in the Court and just change the law as they see fit. Constantly evolving laws based on who controls the Court. What a shame.

    March 10, 2010 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  12. Susie

    Since the Supreme Court took it upon itself to name Bush President, I'd say they have done a pretty good job of showing just how partisan the SC itself has become. So stay home, if you want. Just try to remember that you are supposed to interpret the laws already on the books, not make new ones. Everyone was so worried about Sotomayor, and Roberts and Alito are the real partisan judges here.

    March 10, 2010 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  13. Too True For You

    Yeah, some whacko right wing extremist can insult the Office of the President during the State of the Union by calling the President a liar, and the right wing noise machine caterwauls about exercising free speech, ignoring the lie itself.

    But by golly, let the President truthfully criticize a hugely damaging and unfounded right wing ruling that is a textbook example of the conservative judicial activism, and those right wing judicial ivory tower elitists want to pick up their marbles and go home.

    Doesn't anyone remember how you couldn't read a blog, turn on the radio, or escape the Murdoch Right Wing Media Monopoly without being assaulted by mendacious right-wing-nut paranoia about how Obama was going to destroy the Earth through judicial activism? Where did all that hypocritical outcry go when faced with such a clear cut and damaging example?

    March 10, 2010 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  14. SocialismBad

    Unions are entities not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections, period!

    Associations are entities not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections, period!

    Political Parties are entities not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections, period!

    Political Action Committees are entities not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections, period!

    Newspapers are entities not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections, period!

    Is the stupidity of this arguement obvious yet??!! Corporations, unions, associations, etc all have interests and to deny them the right to free speech is a violation of one of the founding principles of this country.

    Why does freedom of speech scare the left wing so much???

    March 10, 2010 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  15. j

    I was under the impression that the justices of the supreme court were supposed to be UNBIASED. Chief Justice "Got It Wrong" Roberts should take that into consideration before he expresses his political opinions in public.

    March 10, 2010 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  16. Pete

    Republican presidents have attacked Supreme Court decisions during the State of the Union frequently. Roe v. Wade anyone.

    Roberts is just another in a long line of thin-skinned conservatives who literally can't fathom that anyone talks back to them.

    March 10, 2010 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  17. Jim M.

    I agree that President Obama should have voiced his opinion of the ruling in another venue. It was unfair to the justices to have their partisan decisions criticized in a partisan forum. It is even more disturbing that the Supreme Court with Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Thomas long ago left the legal mainstream and are determined to return this country to the turn of the 20th century. Rulings like Kelo v. New London, Bush v Gore, and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commision are eroding respect for the rule of law and for the court itself.

    March 10, 2010 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  18. jfs Memhis, Tn

    It is that "very" issue of partisanship that would suggest that Roberts needs to step down or resign his court position. He may be able to replace Steele as head of the RNC. That job should be open in the near future.

    March 10, 2010 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  19. B E in TN

    And we still have Clarence Thomas for LIFE!!!!!!!!! Talking about the need for term limits. The founding fathers had no clue how long people could be kept alive, especially if they can afford health insurance. I've given up on the possibility our country will ever been unified again!!!

    March 10, 2010 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  20. Chas in Iowa

    I think this indicates just how far to the right the supreme court has moved from recent appointments by the Bush administration.

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

    "Judge" Roberts you are an absolute piece of work. Your "take on the Law" is a superior form of "truthiness" that is taking this country down the Primrose path to an Orwellian future. You are to stand for truth and justice, to be a pillar for the average American citizen to look up to. Guess what you are not even at the first step. The Supreme Court Justices of yesteryear are turning in their graves with the advent of the new "thought" in our legal and justice systems. Now no longer is about ethics and/or morals it is about crafting the truth to fit the desire. Law no longer protect the people they protect the corporations that have been handed a right of citizenship. How can you possibly have one word on the subject of immigration when you have allowed such an enormouos entity to be a person. I am just talking to a brick wall but I had to vent.

    March 10, 2010 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  22. Objective thinking

    I agree with Obama's views on the ruling, but I don't agree with Obama using the State of the Union to express those views.

    March 10, 2010 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  23. Todd

    The SC made itself a political target when they became partisan in 2000. They were no less so in this ruling displaying their priorities as party first and precedent second.

    March 10, 2010 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  24. A keen observer

    It looks like Chief Justice is just another Republican whiner. When will these people grow up?

    President Truman stated it superbly: "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."

    March 10, 2010 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  25. not_a_dem_anymore

    the SCOTUS was right on this case!! The reason dems are against it is b/c as it is now, UNIONS can contribute but corporations cannot. this will level the playing field

    March 10, 2010 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
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