President Obama may have inadvertently touched off a clash between the separate branches of government in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, by scolding the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on campaign-finance reform in front of both houses of Congress.
Obama objected to the Supreme Court’s ruling last week that the First Amendment does not allow Congress to restrict the rights of corporations and unions to run political advertising. The president said the decision reverses 100 years of legal precedent.
Justice Samuel Alito could clearly be seen shaking his head in response, and apparently mouthing the words “not true,” according to several correspondents. Soon a video of the incident was posted on several sites on the Internet.
The stunning sight of a Supreme Court justice and the president of the United States at odds during a State of the Union address, especially over a ruling made by the constitutionally independent judiciary, immediately set talking heads buzzing on cable television, and touched off a firestorm of commentary on the Internet.
The exchange came as Obama, with the Supreme Court justices in their formal robes seated just a few meters in front of him, lectured the court saying that their decision had opened the “floodgates” of special-interest political donations.
“Last week, 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," the president said.
"Well,” he continued, “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 that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."
CNN’s John King reported that Justice Alito could be seen shaking his head and mouthing, and possibly speaking out loud, the words: “That is not true.”
The clash was startling given the traditionally subdued role of justices at state of the union speeches. It also brought to mind the breach of decorum during the president’s address to the joint session of Congress last year, when South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson blurted out in response: “You lie!”
The incident seemed oddly out of place in a speech the president used to renew his calls for post-partisan politics.
The president prefaced his remarks about the Court with the statement, “With all due deference to separation of powers …” But he then went on to take the U.S. Supreme Court to task in a way that left observers pondering whether there was any precedent for a president lecturing the high court on the fine points of law during a joint session of Congress.
The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported that the president “directly rebuked” the justices “to their faces.”
He added that the administration is expecting to fill one, and possibly two Supreme Court vacancies this summer, presumably due to retirements.
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