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. VernisRobertson

    It's troubling when a Supreme court Justice forget how to swear someone in office , why should anyone listen to him.

    March 10, 2010 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  2. opticecho

    There's a reason Obama brought it up, because it was the worst ruling by the supreme court in recent history. Nothing good will come of this. We don't need more $$ in politics, we need less. Public financing of elections are needed for us to overcome the "who has more $$" game politicians play now ...

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

    An his intentional butchering of the oath of office wasn't troubling?

    March 10, 2010 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  4. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Isn't Fox News owned by a foreign corporation? How's that been working out in regards to propogating truth, justice and the American way? Not very well. Ergo, just imagine a corporation foreign or otherwise for nefarious and selfishly greedy reasons of their own pumping money into a particular candidate's campaign. The President was right in calling out the Supreme Court eejits TO THEIR COLLECTIVE FACES (not behind their backs) on this "supicious" ruling. Say what you will, but the same people that brought us the Return of the Shrub (Bush's 2nd term) profited from that decision AND this one as well, IMO. The least the President could've done, and did, was let the whole nation know how devalued their vote wil be in the next election, and who the culprits are.

    Well done I say.

    March 10, 2010 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  5. Independent Texas Voter

    I could not believe what Obama did to the justices. It showed a total lack of respect for them and our governmental process.

    If the court rules in a way Obama doesn't like or approve of, he will just change the law by constitutional amendments. America will be a socialist state with Obama as our dictator if he gets his way.

    This man is dangerous to American freedoms.

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

    In our republican democracy,there remains a separatioin of powers that is inherent in our constitution. There also remains a dignity entitlement for our justice system which is to be exrended to justices. It was disgusting to see the spectacle at the state of the union speech with the president haranging the supreme court justices and democratic congressmen standing and cheering around the small number of justices in robes.It was reminescent of a third world country.

    March 10, 2010 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  7. john in binghamton NY

    Yeah, would Roberts bother observing tradition? He just threw out 100 years of legal precedent, so corporations could buy elections. So why not throw out a silly tradition that has only been around since the supreme court? Roberts is a right wing activist and out of control.

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

    Hmm...Obama didn't seem to mind when all of those corporations and unions were pouring money into his campaign

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

    Chief Justice Roberts can't even inaugarate a POTUS correctly. Am I supposed to take his judgement in campaign finance funding seriously when you can't even given the presidential oath correctly. I can't wait until Roberts, Thomas and Scalia are gone!

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

    Just more proof of what a hack we have as a Presidnet now. I think they would be fine attending by why bother when you have hyperpartisans running the country. This type of ridiculous decorum is standard fare for Obama and why is approval rating is plunging.

    March 10, 2010 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  11. I Can't Stand It

    I'm probably no more of a Constitutional authority than the other "experts" on this post, but it seems to me to be pure folly to believe that the founders intended for the government to stifle free speech if its distribution was paid for by a corporation. And of course, President Obama was way out of line to turn the state of the union into a stump speech. What do you expect from a party that can't even resist turning funerals into political rallies? Even CNN's Kool-Aid drinking viewers should be able to see that.

    March 10, 2010 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  12. Larry Schlumpleburger

    Yeah, and the conservatives have always been SO warm towards the Supreme Court and its rulings, never saying a bad word about it.

    I see Roberts is becoming another right-wing extremist, only seeing partisanship from the liberals. Thus is just absurd posturing and partisan hate-mongering from someone who pretends to be against partisanship. No hypocrisy there.

    And the decision in question? It allows corporations to dump as much money as they want on elections, which will further squelch out YOUR voice. Freedom of speech has become very expensive in America, more than you can afford.

    March 10, 2010 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  13. tmart

    It is meant to address the State of the Union. The Court's decision reflects the State of the Union–that now big wig corporations can bribe candidates with donations.

    March 10, 2010 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  14. aware

    When leaders attempt to do what only God can do they precipitate a downward spiral of narcissistic arrogance demonstrated in ever increasing propaganda and controlling regulation masquerading as healthy community that is actually a tyrannical collective ideology of manipulative control. 🙁

    March 10, 2010 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  15. john in binghamton NY

    BTW Roberts, money is not speech. It if its then why should someone else like a corporation have more speech than me? Free speech should be equal. What is next, allowing corporations to vote and giving them 1 vote for each dollar they spend on their candidate? Why not cut to the chase and just put the CEO of the biggest company in charge?

    March 10, 2010 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  16. george

    @ leonardofru: You must have a short term memory because Bush DID attack the courts. You forget his famous phrase "activist judges?" Not only that, the ENTIRE Republican party attacked Souter after he was put on the court and didn't end up a puppet like Roberts, Alito & Scalia

    Not only that, it is NOT tradition for the Supreme Court to attend the State of the Union. It IS tradition to not make politically biased speeches as a justice. When you are put on the courts, you are supposed to leave your politics behind. This proves Roberts is unable to do his job.

    March 10, 2010 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  17. john in binghamton NY

    I am sure almost all Americans disagree with Roberts putting corporations in charge, but they just don't have the "speech" or money as Roberts would call it to make their voices heard.

    March 10, 2010 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  18. john in binghamton NY

    The supreme court members are supposed to be the watchers, but who watches them?

    March 10, 2010 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  19. Minnesota gal

    What in Hades does he call the partisianship in the decisions he and his four republican justices are making. None of the decisions they have made in no way, shape or form have been bi-partisian. Every single decision is in favor of the republicans. WHY DOESN'T HE STEP DOWN AND LET A REAL INDEPENDENT TAKE HIS PLACE.

    March 10, 2010 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  20. Obama Victim

    the issue is not the court's decision....take it or leave is the behavior of one branch of government to another in that setting.........just another reason why Obozo is a national embarassment

    March 10, 2010 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  21. Anonymous

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

    Hmm? Why can unions spend money in elections? How about non-profit organizations?

    When you decide to single out one collection of individuals as an entity, you better be prepared to do it across the board.

    March 10, 2010 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  22. Annie, Atlanta

    That Supreme Court decision was very troubling. Don't we have enough lobbyists in the halls of Congress? What is extremely troubling is a Supreme Court Justice badmouthing the President. This guy has a political agenda and needs should be impeached for endangering our nation by letting corporations become people. Enough of this far right crap. Dear God they're going to destroy us.

    March 10, 2010 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  23. Adampowell

    We people dont care if you boycott State of Union or any US president functions, yes go ahead.

    Your dicision is classic with what is happening to health care bill. Special interest has made it even tough with flood of money to attack it. American people's interests is subject to donors and special interest approval, well done for your support for them.

    The President has duty to his people after all they elected him to defend country, people and constutution and just to remind you he is also constutution law professor. Special interest are laughig all the way to the bank, while American people are confused.

    March 10, 2010 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  24. guarg


    Corporations are people and have been since Enron.

    As for the topic, I fail to see why Obama is so upset, or liberals in general, over this decision. No one has benefitted more from foreign contributions than Al Gore and the Clinton's. Also, Obama made more money from corporate donations than McCain did in the last election. If anything, the Unios will have even more power within the democratic power as a result.

    For the record, I oppose the ruling. I just don't like the hypocracy of Obama in his treatment of the decision.

    March 10, 2010 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  25. Mr Phil

    When Roberts can completely explain how this ruling will prevent corporations from buying elections, then, maybe, I'll listen to him. The right complain all day long about "activist" judges, but don't seem to mind if their hand-picked jurists are activists for corporate interests.

    March 10, 2010 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
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