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. tepid2

    Barack Obama's rude treatment of the court during the stae of the dis-union speech was just one example of why his his admin is the most incompetant first year presidency since Ulysses Grant, even worse than Jimmy Carter who held the #2 slot until Pres. Odrama came along.

    March 10, 2010 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  2. Adam

    What a flipin cry baby. If you can't take some criticism and stand behind your decision, then you need to get off of the highest court in our land. People who call this an attack are out of their mind. It was an excellent point to make considering the people of this nation no longer have any say in politics unless they have a bank book that can compete with big businesses. Yes, this decision markes yet another sad day in the screwed up history of America.

    March 10, 2010 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  3. Chris - Denver

    Justice Roberts needs to get over himself. He's just sore about being exposed as a corporate stooge.

    March 10, 2010 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  4. Franky, Land of Lincoln

    Well, well, well, what do we have here. Our Pres attacking the Supreme Courts decision? But then again, our president whines a lot, I shouldn't be surprised.

    Search Chief Justice John Marshall. I'm sure people in the political spectrum know who he is and how he was a TRUE player in the courts. Was very influential, that's for sure. Go do it, is good for your health and mind.

    I'm a staunch supporter of "Dual Federalism." So yeah, tell the president to tweeit it up before complaining again in his address.

    March 10, 2010 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  5. Chuck Anaheim, Ca

    Stop your whining, he was called out justly on his judicial activism. Impeach john roberts! He lied during his confirmation.

    March 10, 2010 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  6. Cynthia

    Good stay home. I don't know why they are there anyway. The President can call out who ever he want to, he's the President. Why is this idiot complaining now, that was over a month ago and he's is just now trying to whine about it? What the loser needs to do learn the presidental oath and stop bringing up crap that happen a month ago I have very very little respect for this supreme court, with an exception of a few they are all a bunch of old fuddy duddys, roberts included.

    March 10, 2010 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  7. rita

    You have not heard a peep from Roberts (nor will you) about Joe Wilson's "You Lie" comment during the same gathering last year.

    March 10, 2010 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  8. David in Dallas

    The President was right to call out the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has become the judicial activist wing of the Republican Party. The Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 proved that.

    March 10, 2010 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  9. once upon a horse

    perhaps the president is stil upset because Roberets muffed up his swearing in....either way the SC is not above critisism in some of the decisions they make eg the Bush choice in 2000.

    March 10, 2010 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  10. kww

    To Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and the rest of the right-wing activists on the court.

    An old Harry Truman saying came to mind when I read your whine.

    "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

    If this ruling stands, we will never get another honest election again.

    March 10, 2010 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  11. Wake Up

    Obama was wrong once again. there is separation of powers! Even though a supposed scholar Obama once again tramples what our founders set-up and our constitution. No president in history has called out the supreme court (EQUAL branch of power) in a state of union speech. Obama is a trainwreck.

    March 10, 2010 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  12. boo

    Roberts is as responsible as anyone for the partisanship of the "supreme court". His recent comments only reinforce the notion that he is unable to set aside party allegiance and rule in an unbias fashion.

    March 10, 2010 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  13. barbarag

    How I wish the false rumor of last week had been true: that Roberts was going to resign from the Supreme Court. He h as been left to us as a curse from George W. Bush. The majority convervatives now on the Supreme Court will help to unravel our rights.

    March 10, 2010 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  14. Read the constitution

    for the obamabots...will you ever objectively assess what this awful president is doing? he has no regard for the constitution. this is clearly wrong. you can disagree with the courts decision but there are ways to go around it...such as proper LEGISLATION. I know Obama is campaigning all the time...but can he ever just understand why America is great? Limited govt., states rights, equal branches of government...private ownership...etc etc. I'm sick of having Barach Chavez as our president. Yuck.

    March 10, 2010 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  15. Tom in IL

    It's troubling to see people posting here railing against corporations yet not saying a word about unions being able to now buy elections too. Very hypocritical. And Dave needs to read the Constitution. The Supreme Court is not untouchable. That is why we have checks and balances.

    March 10, 2010 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  16. Roger Elliott

    It is been brewing for awhile, but having that nasty witch as Speaker of The House has not helped, nor the fervor & outlandish expectations associated with the election of the messiah is also problematic. Drama Obama understands he's already slipping so he got tough & more pointed. Understandable – – but it does not help to address the Supreme Court as he did – – and Obama was quite wrong in his assertion. But it made for good theater. Being President is like being a talk show host. That job is almost outmoded because the real direction of the USA is made in Congress where the money is collected and spent and applied by very specific directions. Hence folks, when you next go to the polls be prepared to know in advance how your reps have been voting. If you don't like it, get rid of them.

    March 10, 2010 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  17. Read the constitution

    hey claude.........WHAT ARE UNIONS THEN????? Should they be able to give money??? wake up and understand that Obama is just trying to tip the scales toward democratic donors. Obama is a disgrace, and is empowered by numbnuts like you.

    March 10, 2010 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  18. Chandler


    March 10, 2010 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  19. elaine

    Without pointing out the Supreme Court directly, Bush spoke in the State of the Union several times about activist judges when addressing the gay marriage issue and circling the wagons to usurp states rights and create a federal constitutional amendment to enshrine discrimination into this document forever. The term "activist judges" brought conservatives to their feet and opposition to gay marriage put Bush in the White House for 4 more years.

    March 10, 2010 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  20. John

    Thanks to Alito and Roberts, Al Queda can now donate money to the GOP so this war that they both want can keep right on going. Im so sick of these quaran/bible-thumping, end-of-days retards who try to actually self-fulfill a religious prophecy.

    News Flash: If God is indeed real, he does not need your help bringing about the apocalypse.

    March 10, 2010 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  21. john

    to leonardofru – What Obama did was not an attack on the Supreme Court, it was simply him stating his opinion during HIS speech. An attack would be what Joe Wilson did when he turned a speech to the joint houses of congress into a bar room argument with his outburst. Elections have consequences and hearing constant complaints from the 30% that lost is starting to get old. Get over it, Obama won and he is the President. Geesh!

    I suspect Roberts is lashing out because his conscious is getting the better of him.

    March 10, 2010 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  22. rdepontb

    Chief Justice Roberts,

    The very reason you are even at the SCOTUS is political. The "court's" decision, by the narrowest of margins, to allow unfettered campaign contributions from businesses, both US and foreign, was waaay political, and absurdly so. For you to so conveniently ignore or forget that key fact is what is most troubling of all...that is, after the actual decision itself.

    Shame on you and your parents.

    March 10, 2010 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  23. John

    Barack Obama's actions at the State of the Union were uncalled for..... he just "reversed a century of respect" the president shows the bench at these speaches.....

    he's just p.o.'d he didn't get his way....

    take your ball and go home, Barry....

    March 10, 2010 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  24. WIlbert

    Aside from your personal view of the Supreme Court decision, it was very low class for the President to turn the "State of the Union" into a what amounted to a Sunday morning talk show style dialogue.

    March 10, 2010 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  25. Bench Warmer

    Legislating from the bench is the dangerous trend we have to fear.

    March 10, 2010 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
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