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The normally restrained chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, took a swipe at the president and Congress last night. He called the State of the Union address a partisan pep rally. And Roberts questioned whether the court should continue the tradition of attending.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: What seems to have set the chief justice off was President Obama's call to enact legislation mitigating a recent Supreme Court decision that invalidated a 100-year-old ban on corporate campaign spending.
President BARACK OBAMA: 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...
(Soundbite of applause)
Pres. OBAMA: ...including foreign corporations to spend without limit in our elections.
TOTENBERG: At that, Justice Samuel Alito mouthed the words not true and shook his head, while the other five justices attending the speech sat stone-faced. Last night, Chief Justice Roberts struck back. Answering a question from a student at the University of Alabama Law School, Roberts said officials are entitled to criticize court decisions. But in a rare public display of temper, he questioned the setting Obama chose, and the, quote, "decorum" of the House and Senate.
Chief Justice JOHN ROBERTS (U.S. Supreme Court): 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. And to the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there.
TOTENBERG: State of the Union criticism of a Supreme Court decision is nothing new. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, among others, all did it. In 1988, for instance, two years after the court reaffirmed its ban on school prayer, President Reagan noted that the Supreme Court and Congress both acknowledge God at the opening of their proceedings. And he called for a constitutional amendment to reverse the school prayer ruling.
In 1984, six months after the court reaffirmed its Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, and again four years later, Mr. Reagan was strongly critical.
President RONALD REAGAN: To those who say this violates a woman's right to control of her own body, can they deny that now medical evidence confirms the unborn child is a living human being entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
(Soundbite of applause)
TOTENBERG: President Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs responded to Chief Justice Roberts' remarks by focusing not on the court, but the campaign spending decision. The president said Gibbs, quote, "has long been committed to reducing the undue influence of special interests and their lobbyists over government. That's why he spoke out to condemn the decision and is working with Congress on a legislative response."
Supreme Court attendance at State of the Union speeches has been spotty and often uncomfortable. Incomplete records at the Supreme Court curator's office indicate justices first attended in 1913, but did not attend regularly until the 1950s. In 1937, President Roosevelt expected the court to attend. But one of his top aides, Harold Ickes, wrote in his diary that someone apparently tipped the court off that the Roosevelt's speech would be critical of the court, and none of the justices showed.
Even today there's often only one justice there as a sort of token representative of the judiciary and each justice decides for himself or herself whether to attend. All of the justices, however, have been subjected to the confirmation process, and last night, Chief Justice Roberts was highly critical of that, too.
Chief Justice ROBERTS: I think the process has broken down. The senators ask questions. We tell them we can't answer, then they ask more questions we can't answer.
TOTENBERG: Said Roberts, the Senate would learn more by asking nominees what books they read.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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