One memorable moment in last night's State of the Union address: Justice Samuel Alito shaking his head and seemingly mouthing the words "not true" during a dressing down of the Court by President Obama. NPR's Peter Overby offers us this perspective:
No members of Congress shouted at President Obama last night, but an alert camera operator did catch Supreme Court Justice Alito grumbling signs of displeasure.
The object of his objection: Mr. Obama's criticism of the Supreme Court decision that corporations can throw money into politics.
Here's what the president said:
With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.
The video shows that as Mr. Obama says "including foreign corporations," Justice Alito shakes his head and speaks. One phrase seems to be "Not true."
Legally, the president's clarion call is, well, good politics.
Over the past week, I've been asking campaign finance lawyers what the Supreme Court said about foreign corporations. Their consensus: Nothing has changed. The foreign firms were already walled off from American electoral politics. The statute that covers them wasn't challenged, and the justices didn't address it.
That statute bars political contributions from non-Americans who don't have green cards. It's talking about individuals there, but it goes further. Foreign companies can't funnel political money into the U.S. through their subsidiaries here, and foreign employees of a subsidiary can't participate in deciding how political money is be used.
Those provisions likely don't cover every possibility, but all of the lawyers I spoke with, liberal and conservative, said it's broad and tough — a criminal statute, as Robert Lenhard, a former Democratic chairman of the Federal Election Commission, pointed out.
As for Justice Alito, whatever he said seemed to fall on deaf ears. Not even Justice Sonia Sotomayor, sitting right beside him, looked his way.