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. steve

    While I was shocked that Obama mentioned the Supreme Court, if any Supreme Court decision was to ever be mentioned at the State of the Union, I can't think of a better one to address. This decision was a political hot potato of all political hot potato's and has motivated the Congress like nothing else before to move to block its impact.

    March 10, 2010 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  2. PALINs PALM PILOT...have all the Retarded asnwers to her Stupidity

    Judicial activists on the RIGHT now occupy the surpreme court:

    1. Voting for guns to be in the public school system
    2. Corporations given individual rights to own political parties and candidates!

    Yeah, now they want to get into the partisan debate...we all know where Justices Roberts and Aliton stand....the Teabaggers corner!!!

    March 10, 2010 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  3. Russ

    If you want to know their rationale, read their ruling – they explained it right there. Roberts is right here, Obama is wrong.

    March 10, 2010 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  4. Ed, Santa Fe, NM

    Roberts can shut his yap. The Supreme Court lost all credibility in 2000 when they made a POLITICAL decision to hand the election to Fascist Bush. Their recent moronic decision about campaign contributions also helps hands foreign money to the Fascist GOP.

    March 10, 2010 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  5. Laverne

    Their ruling is what's troubling. Why in the world would they overturn a ruling that has been in place for so long? I will tell you why, it was a way to boost future campaigns toward the republican party. They moved the goal post because President Obama raised so much money during the 2008 campaign, the ones who voted for it wangted to ensure it never happens again. Actually this is a no brainer, it's all about power and money, just listen to the republican presentation about donors that came out on last week and you will know why.

    March 10, 2010 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  6. Carl Justus


    John Roberts must understand that large amounts of money given or spent to enhance someones ability to gain power, influence is PLAIN BRIBERY. Does Roberts think that if a corporation or even a person is able to give unlimited amount of money to buy ads for or against a candidate will not be used to influence the politicians vote. If he Roberts, Scaila, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy do not understand that then they have no business on any court, much less the supreme court.

    March 10, 2010 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  7. I'm just sayin...

    This is basically the Chief Justice's way of holding his breath and stomping his feet like a child... "If you don't say nice things I won't come!"

    The president has not just a right, but a DUTY to speak out when the Supreme Court makes one of the worst decisions in history. The state of our union was severly injured by this decision, so it is entirely apporpriate for the president to comment on it during his "state of the union" speech.

    Sorry Roberts... History will judge this decision – and you – harshly.

    March 10, 2010 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  8. Sandy in Portland

    Justice Roberts, perhaps you should have just kept your mouth shut. The person politicizing this issue is you, not the President. He commented on an important issue, as is his perogative, at HIS State of Union speech. If you want to comment on the issue, do so without mentioning the President. You and your conservative cohorts at the Supreme Court made a bad decision, overturning years of settled law. Blaming the President doesn't change it.

    March 10, 2010 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  9. mike

    Well Mr. Roberts,

    As over 80% of americans polled agree that this decision was CRAP, I think it's high time you hear the criticisms of 'average americans' who you've now given the green light to have their voices muted by the very wealthy & large corporations who you love.

    And why no claims of 'judicial activism' by the far right wing? seems to me that Roberts led a decision that upset over 100 years of precedent ... sounds pretty activist to me.

    Not to mention, why is no one on the right 'flabbergasted' when the GoP attacks 'liberal' court ruling day in & day out?

    just wondering ...

    March 10, 2010 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  10. ran

    I hate to break it to you Mr. Roberts but you are part of the partnership issue yourself. You and the other justices are to be above politics and stick to the rule of law and yes as you swore to uphold precedent. That is why you all get lifetime appointments.

    The court also belongs to the people not you to undo what you personally do not like. Do your job or get out and run for public office; but if you stay do what the constitution demands of you.

    March 10, 2010 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  11. Charlie in Maine

    Isn't that a little like the skunk complaining about the smell.

    March 10, 2010 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  12. george

    Critical comments made by the president during the state of the union address, regarding a decision made by Supreme Court Justices was wrong. To use the president's own words in a previous public incident in which he personally interfered, he "handled it stupidly". Justice Roberts and all justices should stop attending this event.

    March 10, 2010 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  13. Money > Human Lives to the GOP

    That's right people, defend Roberts.

    You have no idea what they have done to our country by overturning that ruling, but as long as it's something negative about Obama, who cares right.

    Don't worry, in 2012 you can vote for Sara Palin or Ron Paul, sponsored by Exxon and Aetna.

    March 10, 2010 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  14. Money > Human Lives to the GOP

    Don't worry Roberts defenders, in 2012 you can vote for Republicans, sponsored by Exxon and Aetna.

    March 10, 2010 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  15. Richard

    You know what is really troubling . . . the partisan Supreme Court.

    March 10, 2010 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  16. rachel

    I wouldn't come anymore it's troubling that you have a branch of government who are suppose to be on equal footing executive branch and the have to sit and there and be talked down to and can't say anything to defend themseleves because it deminshes the office and President Obama can get away with another lie.

    March 10, 2010 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  17. fl

    The supreme court should find a way to impeach oboma the clown

    March 10, 2010 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  18. Fed Up

    They wonder why this country is divided when the President does stuff like this. I think the Supreme Court needs to stay away from anything the President does. They have nothing to do with him. For the President, it's a problem of status. He needs to get everyone there to fawn over him. Fawning done sir. Move on. Vote 'em in. Vote 'em out.

    March 10, 2010 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  19. Tim

    In other words, he thinks Obama is Bozo.

    Sorry Bozo, no offense.

    March 10, 2010 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  20. Carl Justus

    Most so called "conservatives" tell the world how religious they are and like to say how God rules their lives.

    I understand that John Roberts claims to be a so called" conservative" and if he is one of those who like to tell the world how much he beleives in God, he surely is reading God's word.

    The Bible makes no bones about the rich and how hard it is for them to get into heaven. The Bible says also very plainly states that the LOVE OF MONEY IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL.

    Now Roberts should know that quote even if he is a heathen and if he half as smart as he likes to think of himself and how smart many others think of him is ALL FALSE. For he must know even from childhood, you can bribe people with a little money not UNLIMITED AMOUNTS.

    March 10, 2010 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  21. bill

    Roberts is exactly right. the way the most distinguished branch of our government is supposed to sit there and not make any facial expressions while CLOWNS like Chuckie Schumer stand right above them jeering at them is beyond belief. This President has NO CLASS for putting them in that situation. And the truly amazing part is how the next day all the press could talk about is how Judge Alito actuallly had " the nerve" to shake his head lightly and vaguely mouth non offensive words, while the dems were up ranting and jeering like monkeys in a cage

    March 10, 2010 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  22. Danny Davis

    It is incomprehendable that Chief Justice Roberts feels so offended by the remarks President Obama levled at the Supreme Court over their recent reversal allowing unrestrained cooperate fund raising. It is a slap to the decency of democracy and to the safe guards put in place to limit undue influence over the electoral process. I am glad the President spoke so forcefully and agree with him totally. Chief Justice Roberts needs to get a life and quit acting like a spoiled child.

    March 10, 2010 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  23. John, Brooklyn, NY

    Two thoughts:

    1) Roberts also needs to be concerned about the partisanship of his own court. The court's 5-4 decision to award civil rights to corporations was not only a blatant effort to pander to the sponsors of the has largely been panned as an over-reach by legal scholars and, well, just a bad decision in general.

    2) Its ironic that, since he seems so supportive of supporting the civil rights of BIG BUSINESSES...that he'd use University of Alabama – an institution historically dedicated to DENYING civil rights to black PEOPLE – as his backdrop.

    Bottom line...Roberts is just steamed that his decisions are being questioned publicly by Obama...a fellow Harvard Law almnus and fellow editor of the school's law review. How petty!

    March 10, 2010 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  24. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    And this wingnut leading the conservative charge to take over America isn't troubling?

    March 10, 2010 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court made a disastrous, partisan ruling which gives more power to big companies during elections which in turn favours the Republicans. Everyone knows that. Justice Roberts has to live with that decision and the repercussions it will have on the democratic process during elections. The power in the Supreme Court still favours the Republicans and that decision illustrates that clearly. If it was a good rule for a hundred years, why did it have to change unless for political purposes?

    March 10, 2010 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
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