President Barack Obama may see markedly fewer black-robed Supreme Court justices when he gazes down from the podium at this year’s State of the Union message, owing in part to what he said about the high court at last year’s address.
One year ago, the president used his bully pulpit at the annual joint session of Congress to publicly castigate the highest court in the land for its Citizens United ruling that allowed corporate financing of political ad campaigns.
“With all due deference to the separation of powers,” Obama said, “… the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates.” Democratic senators seated next to the justices reacted with thunderous applause, as the six justices in attendance sat somberly.
One justice, Samuel Alito, just couldn’t quite hold his peace, however. He mouthed the words: “Not true.”
There is no Constitutional requirement for justices to attend the speech, and the fallout from the president’s attack on the independent judiciary will be obvious this year. Alito’s staff has already announced he has a prior commitment in Hawaii.
Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas -- who says justices hear “catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments" -- is an annual no-show at the State of the Union already.
So is conservative jurist Antonin Scalia. He has called the event a “juvenile spectacle,” and adds: “… I resent being called upon to give it dignity.”
That leaves only two conservatives who might attend: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and frequent swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy by nature has a moderate, thoughtful temperament. But it’s worth noting that he wrote the Citizens United opinion that Obama excoriated on national television.
Roberts is no fan of the venue, either. Last year he said he was “very troubled” by the scene of justices sitting stone-faced as Democrats surrounded them cheering and jeering.
Roberts said that to the extent the State of the Union speech has degenerated into a pep rally, he’s not sure why justices should attend.
Roberts may feel compelled to attend, although it should be noted Chief Justice William Rehnquist missed several State of the Union speeches during his tenure.
Obama’s speech falls just 17 days after Federal Judge John Roll and five others were killed by a deranged gunman in Tucson, Ariz.
Roberts recently eulogized Roll’s death, calling it “a somber reminder of the importance of the rule of law and the sacrifices of those who work to secure it.”
Sources say President Obama is expected to refer to the tragedy and its aftermath during his address.
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