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. Mzenga Lunani

    It sounds specious for the chief justice to complain about context but does he not realize that the decision that the court took, apparently influenced by partisan considerations, was a matter that affects profoundly the state of the union?

    March 10, 2010 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  2. Publico

    Mr. Chief Justice, your are there as the representative of the judicial branch of the Federal government. If you cannot bear criticism for decisions made by the Supreme Court, for which you were chosen because of your political leanings, maybe you are not cut out for the job and should step aside.

    March 10, 2010 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  3. SLM

    Obamas promise to be the most bipartisan administration was nothing but a big fat lie.............the is the MOST divisive administration EVER and he also wins the awards for the most LIES told and yet people fell for his rhetoric. Next time try voting with your brains. Hillary would have been a far better choice for this country and we would have been in economic recovery by now, instead we are sinking deeper into debt and closer to becoming just like California.

    March 10, 2010 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  4. Too Funny

    Bush repeatedly chastised the courts by calling them "activist judges" everytime a ruling was not in line with the republican haven said that it was wrong when he did it and though i'm a big supporter of the President, I have to say it was wrong when he did. It's just simply not the right forum.

    March 10, 2010 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  5. Rick Babb

    Kind of like a virus, Bush left us I'd say. When elections are truly based on money, which they are and Dems are for the working man, most of the time, and seeing how there are so many blue collars out of work and don't have the money to support their candidate they are screwed. This country was built by blue collars and the white collars get to run it. Doesn't hardly seem fair. That was Jimmy Stewart talking there.

    March 10, 2010 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  6. Bob

    If corporations are not entitled to First Amendment protection, than I guess that carries over to violent video games, pornography, and offensive language in music and movies, right? The publisher is almost always a corporation.

    Make your choice. You can't have it both ways.

    March 10, 2010 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  7. ted

    While I would agree that Obama's criticism of the Supremes at the SOTU speech was not in the best timing, Roberts needs to grow a thick skin. The Supremes ruling will allow corporations and lobbyists full access to buy advertising time to swing votes. This is a horrible precedence and the Supremes should be ashamed of themselves for handing down this ruling. One would think these people are intelligent, but possibly not, as they obviously went by rule of law, not common sense. Maybe term limits are in order.

    March 10, 2010 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  8. Sheryl

    I don't see how the President's comments could be construed as 'partisan'.

    March 10, 2010 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  9. John

    "To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there."

    Chief Justice Roberts knows full well why he attends the annual SOU address: Because the Constitutions says so.

    So, Mr. (conservative) Chief Justice: Aren't you being just as political when you dis the president with a rhetorical question?

    March 10, 2010 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  10. James Cunningham

    Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Obama tend to forget who they are and who Chief Justice Roberts is, the leader of a co-equal branch of the U.S. Government under the Constitution. Instead of executive branch leaders, they resemble classless and clueless Chicago thug style politicans which of course is exactly where they came from. So if the shoe fits gentlemen, wear it and of course it does fit only too well! Shameful. The worst President since Warren G. Harding who I do believe still had more class than the two of them together.

    March 10, 2010 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  11. AJ

    Really? Roberts is objecting to partisanship? Roberts leads a court that will go down in history as one of the most politically motivated in history and he's going to whine about getting slapped around by the President? Give me a break. I'm no fan of Obama but it was a good move on the part of the President to publically put the spotlight on this court. The Roberts majority sold out the interests of the American public in favor of big business and the republican party, period.

    March 10, 2010 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  12. Sandra, Atlanta

    It was a political one and they don't like being called out on it. They are bought and paid for just like Congress. Judicial activism at it's very worst. I don't think any regular American regardless of party affliation believes their decision is a good one (and by regular I mean someone who wants their vote to count and not just corporations dollars!)

    March 10, 2010 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  13. Dumbasrocks [R]s

    First of all there was NOTHING partisan about Obama's comment on the ruling, and his comment was NOT an attack on the supreme court. It was a comment on a poorly conceived ruling.

    Second, the hypocrisy of the rightwing is on full display here: they bemoan and cry "judicial activism" when moderate judges provide moderate rulings based on the law, but when one of their own goes way beyond the law to make up, out of thin air, rights for corporate and union entities....their toothless and brainless silence is deafening.

    Only defensive, hyper-deluded [R]s view Obama's comments as "partisan", because they are the very neo-tards who continue their vacuous, hyper-partisan defense of the Bush abomination and anything to do with it (like its supreme court appointments). Its been quite some time since our individual freedoms and our constitution have come under such direct attack....

    ......and for those who do think Obama's comments were partisan, I just hope you note the political direction from which this attack on personal freedom came.

    March 10, 2010 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  14. cord Udall

    "The justice's ruling on that case is even more troubling. Corporations are entities not people, they can not vote so they should not be able to spend money in elections, period!"

    I'm pretty sure Mr. Obama received plenty of donations from corporate entities during his campaign (and continues to do so). Here are just a few: Goldman Sachs $421,763 Ubs Ag $296,670 Lehman Brothers $250,630 National Amusements Inc $245,843 JP Morgan Chase & Co $243,848 Sidley Austin LLP $226,491 Citigroup Inc $221,578 Exelon Corp $221,517 Skadden, Arps Et Al $196,420 Jones Day $181,996 Harvard University $172,324 Citadel Investment Group $171,798 Time Warner $155,383 Morgan Stanley $155,196 Google Inc $152,802 University of California $143,029 Jenner & Block $136,565 Kirkland & Ellis $134,738 Wilmerhale Llp $119,245 Credit Suisse Group $118,250

    Anyway, Roberts wasn't talking about the decision (and he even concedes that of course Obama and others are entitled to their opinion). He is simply bemoaning the entire premise of the event and what goes on there (a big partisan circus of cheering, ovations, etc.)

    March 10, 2010 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  15. I am the Great and Omnipotent Wizard of Rush and I Say . . .

    Oh Boo Hoo – Obama attacked a terrible Supreme Court decision that harkens to the days of robber barons and no accountability.
    Roberts needs to call for a WWAAAAMMMMBULANCE.

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

    Don't come then. After that controversial ruling, maybe it's best that you don't attend if your fragile sensibilities are going ot be hurt. Because you will be called out on your wreckless conservative rulings.

    March 10, 2010 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  17. felicia

    roberts needs to step down him being scotus is absurd, their ruling is conivving and cowardly. WTG Mr President

    March 10, 2010 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  18. usualone

    The State of the Union is no different than it has ever been. The opposition party usually sits on its hands. Notice of the Supreme Court members in the past has been little. Mr. Roberts' distaste for the President is apparent, so if he doesn't want to come next time, then he shouldn't come. That should not persuade the other justices though.

    March 10, 2010 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  19. GI Joe

    What boggles my mind are three things

    Most of Court are white men
    Most of Court are catholic
    Most of Court were appointed by republicans

    March 10, 2010 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  20. Fitz in Texas

    While Obama was attacking the Supreme Court during his State of the Union address I couldn't help to think was class the justice's had sitting there listening to Obama. To bad Obama doesn't have that same class.

    March 10, 2010 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  21. tmart

    I believe the Court got what it deserved with the slap on the wrist by the President. Their decision in this case will eventually be known as one of the worst decisions the court has ever made. It would be unfortunate if the Court chose not to attend the State of the Union Address, because I think it looks good for our country to show the best of our democratic system. But I can understand if the Court should choose otherwise.

    March 10, 2010 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  22. BJs65

    What, last year didn't bother you? Of course not. Roberts, just STFU.

    March 10, 2010 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  23. Liz

    Roberts and his republican-appointed cronies on the court are going to do everything they can to move the laws of this country ever more toward the right, to the great detriment of the American people. they've proven they have no respect for settled law with that disastrous campaign finance decision. so he needs to shut up about partisanship. he's a main player in partisanship.

    March 10, 2010 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  24. Marilyn

    I lost all trust and respect for the supreme court back in 2000 when they gave the election to George Bush. That doesn't mean I am a fan of Obama - his arrogance knows no limits. We truly went from bad to unimaginably worse when Obama was elected. But at least he was elected, not appointed by the supreme court.

    March 10, 2010 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  25. Mark

    I find it extremely ironinc that the man that refused to abide by campeign finance rules in the last presidential election; which was so he could accept as much corporate money as he could, would criticize this ruling. His actions at the State of the Union just continue to show his personal disdain for the American way of life and true disrespect for our form of government. It is also just another clue that Obama was and is not qualified for the job. Like Bush or not; he carried himself well, and there was no doubt that he loved this country. With Obama; it is definitely just the opposite.

    March 10, 2010 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
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