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. reality check

    Justice Roberts knows in his heart that the President is right on this one. The courts sold out to the corporate interest and now the rest of us, that don't sit in corporate boardrooms, will be paying the price. "We the people" need a voice and it cannot be heard over the corporate special interests. Who now control the media, the polititions, and courts.

    March 10, 2010 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  2. Lynn

    Roberts is only whining. That anyone would question someone of such superior intelligence as he and the rest of his pals have, rattles his sensitivites.

    March 10, 2010 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  3. Steve (the real one)

    Corporations, unions, and advocacy groups have always funded politicians. In fact, they still do! They STILL lobby! All policians, to include the current President have raked in millions from these groups. Exaclty why do you think he rejected public funding? More money from the unions, corporations, and special interest groups! BTW, Foreign funding is STILL ILLEGAL! Althought I don't get the corporations are invidiuals thing! The thing is to do your research before voting! Seek facts and stop worrying about commercials and endorements!

    March 10, 2010 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  4. glib lib

    It's the partisanship within the Supreme Court that he should be concerned with.

    March 10, 2010 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  5. Anita

    Justice's ruling itself was troubling. On top of it, Robert is winning and compaining. Robert is behaving like child ,whose mistakes are exposed and now protesting.
    GROW UP. You are totally out of touch.

    Unfortunatly Supreme Court has too mcuh power for its immaturity.
    It may ruin this country unless its hypocrasy is exposed and controlled by public

    March 10, 2010 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  6. bill in pa

    The justices are just another group of politicians. We know how they'll rule for any given case that they accept. Stop the charade of them being the supreme law of the land. They're becoming a bunch of political hacks and need to grow thicker skin and join the circus.

    March 10, 2010 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  7. Brice

    Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito are friends with Bush that's why Bush nominated to play political game. I suspect both are arm of Republicans and Corporations. You will see what happen on Election Day and 2012.

    March 10, 2010 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  8. ToughLove

    Obama is a's so crystal clear when you look at his backdoor deals with the legislative branch and his public belittling of the judicial branch! This brilliant system of governance that has kept our country great is under seige by a president with socialist tendencies.
    Agree or disagree with his agenda...this is painfully true and terriifying as well.

    March 10, 2010 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  9. normajean

    Why shouldn't you be there. I know you don't care what the citizens think but after your latest input giving corporations more power, i think you need to know when we feel you have abused your power . There seem to be a number of people in position to know , that this latest pronouncment could case a great deal of trouble in the electurate area . You sit there with a smirk on your face as if you pulled something on all of us and frankly, I'm not sure but what you did. There may be a way we can wipe that look off your face. We"ll try anyway. The State of The Union message is the presidents opportunity to state his opinions and he has every right and privilege to do so and he was right.

    March 10, 2010 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  10. Marty

    Actually, corporations have been given the status of individuals and have individual rights same as people for tax purposes. Guess which Republican administration ushered this law through.

    March 10, 2010 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  11. Paul from Phoenix

    I hate to say it, but campaign finance laws are anti-constitution. Why should I be told by the government that I can only contribute x amount of dollars to a campaign? If I want to donate $50 dollars or $5 million dollars, It is my right to do so.

    Obama acted like a Chicago thug in the way he treated the members of the Supreme Court. (Note: this is not a racial comment. By thug, I mean along the lines of Capone). Someone made a decision that went against his agenda, so he took an opportunity where his "opponent" could not fight back and delivered a cheap shot.

    Obama did the same during the Health Care summit, making multiple snide comments against the weaker congressman, but he ran scared from Rep. Ryan because he knew Ryan would run circles around him.

    March 10, 2010 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |

    I believe they have a duty to attend, they represent the PEOPLE of America, John Roberts needs to grow thick skin, not all of their decisions will be popular and if you can't take the heat then get out of the kitchen. By Prez calling them out shows that he too represents all of us. What the supreme court just did I agree opens the flood gates for all to throw their money at the one who is willing to stand for what they want in return.

    March 10, 2010 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  13. Randy

    Justice Roberts envisioned his court would be more united, with few 5-4 decisions. Reality is the court has become more divided, just as the country has. It is a sign of the time we live in.

    In a free nation, both sides get their opinion aired. Our improved communications systems (limitless sources via the internet) now makes it so everyone can actually read what the other side is saying.
    Bringing people together is hard. Attacking the other party is easy.

    March 10, 2010 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  14. Michael

    Dave, Claude, Arapikos, I can only 100% agree

    March 10, 2010 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  15. Ralph in IL

    The Supreme Court much like Congress is simply out of touch with the citizens of this country. They should be called out when they make a ruling in favor of corporate influence in the political process. More stupidity from the "conservative" bench. I'm sick and tired of it all.

    March 10, 2010 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  16. Victor from Denver

    And this from such a rabid partisan that he could not even remember the oath of office when swearing in the president ? Was that also Obama's fault or was it just incompetence on his part ? I think it was demonstrative of how he just could not get over the fact that he had to swear in a black man and that too a democrat.

    Given that anyone could forget such a long oath, the least he could have done was to read from a paper to hide his incompetence. And then to rule that multimillion dollar corporation as equivalent to common men ? The level of incompetence is just disgusting...

    March 10, 2010 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  17. haren

    If you rule with partisanship toward Republican than you don't have Right to comment on very true Obama union address.

    March 10, 2010 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  18. Marcus Tate

    We need election reform, and campaign finance reform in particular. When corporations and special interests spend large amounts of money on candidates to get them elected, those elected officials now owe those who paid their way. That is why we have the political system we do, why corporations and special interests own our politicians. SHAME ON JOHN ROBERTS and the other members of the US Supreme Court who voted to continue to allow corporations and special interests to own our elected officials.

    March 10, 2010 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  19. Tony in Maine

    but, but, but, but...judicial activism is a phrase used by conservatives to describe liberal decisions. A conservative court being activist. The sky will fall. The world is truly turned upside down.

    Of course, the Scalia Court is one of the most activist courts since the Warren Court – but they can't be activist. No sir! They're good solid, wrapped in the flag, red white and blue, founder quoting jurists.

    March 10, 2010 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  20. David in Houston

    The Supreme Court's ruling is what I find "very troubling".

    Justice Roberts, the republican gift that keeps on giving. corporations that is.

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

    Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court overturned a hundred year old ruling that has worked fairly and just fine. By overturning the rule, the Supreme Court has given unfair power to the big companies, wealthy individuals and maybe even companies with foreign ties. This will obviously favour the Republicans. Justice Roberts and his Republican allies on the Court will have to live with the outcomes and effects of this ruling on the democratic processs or lack of it during future elections. If he doesn't like partisanship, he has an odd way of showing it because this smacked of blatant partisanship and everyone knows it.

    March 10, 2010 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  22. Frank

    A truly legal example of the pot calling the kettle black.

    March 10, 2010 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  23. Alan

    leonardofru "The fact that Mr. Obama would attack the Supreme Court during the State of the Union is mind boggling, even if he was correct in his opinon on the ruling, which he was not. If Bush had done that the state media would still be vibrating."

    PRESIDENT Obama didn't "attack" the Supreme Court. He called them out publicly on an obviously patently partisan decision regarding corporate power to affect our future elections. The SC is currently stacked, thanks to GW, in the wrong direction. That was the conservatives' goal - so they could throw out ANY new laws that were made for decades to come if they don't fit the partisan Republican "conservative" (what a joke) plan.

    Wake up, people. This SC is the worst we've seen in a LONG time. It is the living breathing extension of GW and we still must live with them until they DIE.

    Good going, Mr. President and, I believe, in a country where free speech is still Guaranteed - you can keep at them.

    March 10, 2010 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  24. The lonely Libertarian of Liverpool NY

    I know a solution, stop electing democrats and republicans. Stop voting for those who represent party before the people. This would end end the partisanship.
    You need to get off that “My party or the Highway” mentality.

    Vote Congress out, “you are fired” if they are in. Vote them out this fall no matter what party they belong to, and in the next election and every election going forward until they become the servants of the people once more.

    March 10, 2010 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  25. Florida Joe

    Mr Chief Justice
    What is really troubling is the Supreme Court Legislating from the bench!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 10, 2010 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
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